Struggles of today’s repairman
Any electronic device, regardless of its brand name, could break down eventually - and getting a new one isn’t always wise. What are the options if an owner wants to repair his device by replacing or fixing its’ internal components?
Let’s say we would like to repair by replacing the components - which is more accessible to an unskilled person. Usually, a manufacturer doesn’t let the users buy the spare parts directly: instead, it partners with a few chains of hardware repair shops who are glad to make a profit. This results in a modest supply limited to the unofficial channels: the owner gets a part either extracted from some used device without a guarantee or quality, or bought under the table from the unused supplies of these hardware repair shops through some grey-market schemes.
If we would like to repair by fixing the components such as the laptop’s motherboard: in addition to some soldering skills - and hoping we won’t have to replace a BGA or a “centipede” SMD - we also need the board-specific information. A motherboard’s datasheet could be a great source of knowledge: i.e. it could provide a diagram of power circuits with the known good voltages at the various motherboard’s points - which could greatly assist in troubleshooting and finding the faulty components. However, usually a manufacturer doesn’t provide a datasheet. So it’ll be either unavailable or an illegally leaked one: at some dark corner of the Internet, maybe for an older motherboard revision and isn’t user-friendly to study - since they didn’t write this internal documentation with end-users in mind.
Unfortunately, the firmware problems could accompany the hardware one. If a controller with internal memory got burned, in addition to replacing a controller - you’ll also need to get a suitable firmware and find a way to install it.
And the components themselves may be firmware-locked: to ensure that you can’t replace a broken part by yourself and have to bring your device to an authorized hardware repair shop - who knows how to pass this system but charges a lot for their services.
“Right to repair” activism
Tired of jumping through these hoops while trying to fix their devices, the people are advocating for “Right to repair” laws - which should force the uncooperative manufacturers to sell the replacement parts and provide their datasheets. One of the prominent activists is Trammell Hudson, a director of special projects at Lower Layer Labs: several years ago, he became frustrated with the limited capabilities of digital cameras and decided to reverse engineer camera firmware to better meet his needs. That led to the creation of an open source developer community focused on modifying camera firmware and Magic Lantern, a software extension to expand the capabilities of digital cameras.
“It’s really my firm belief that everyone should be able to customize and repair devices that they own, including modifications to both the hardware and the firmware, and especially that they be able to publish information on how to do this, so that others are able to do the same,” - he said. However, this may take plenty of time to get these laws passed because of the lobbying by corporations.
For those who aren’t willing to wait or buy an older used device with a higher repairability: there are some companies - who, despite not being obliged by law, are voluntarily providing the “Right to repair” in an attempt to win the hearts of customers. One of such companies is 3mdeb: the licensed provider for quality coreboot consulting services and Open Source Firmware Vendor (OSFV) relying on Dasharo to deliver scalable, modular, easy to combine Open Source BIOS, UEFI, and Firmware solutions. When we have the board schematics and our hands are not tied by the NDAs - we happily provide these schematics to our customers, and intend to continue doing so with our upcoming products as well.