Steve Wozniak Endorses the Right to Repair

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Last week was a big one on the right to repair beat. As part of his broad executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy, President Joe Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on restrictions that limit the ability of consumers to repair products they own.

According to Verge, President Joe Biden’s latest executive order is a huge win for right to repair:

Tucked into the executive order that covered 72 initiatives to promote competition in the US economy, Biden specifically asked the FTC to crack down on “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”

The FTC had already begun to explore ways to implement a right to repair. In May, the agency released a comprehensive report, Nixing the Fix: an FTC Report to Congress on Repair Initiatives, which endorsed the right to repair and debunked opposing arguments. The report concluded “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” (See my May post for further details, Big Tech Goes All In to Thwart Right to Repair Initiatives, for further details)

Now, the combination of the Biden directive with the leadership of Lina Khan as the newly-installed FTC chair should see federal rights to repair initiatives emerge  – and soon I hope (see my post discussing the Khan appointment, Biden Taps Lina Khan to Chair the FTC).

Wozniak Endorses Right to Repair

Last week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made quite a splash when he  endorsed the right to repair.  As Gizmodod noted in Steve Wozniak Voices Strong Support for the Growing Right to Repair Movement:

In a recent Cameo video made in response to another major right to repair advocate Louis Rossman, Woz said his busy schedule had previously prevented him from getting deeply involved with the topic, he now felt it was time to speak out on something that has “really affected me emotionally.” After doing his own research on the issue, Woz said he “totally supports” the right to repair movement and that the people behind the movement are “doing the right thing.”

I include the full video here. It’s only nine minutes long and is well worth your time.

Wozniak’s endorsement is significant, because as regular readers know, today’s Apple is a leading opponent of the right to repair (see these previous posts for further details: Apple Blinks on Right to Repair: Or Does It?; and Rotten Apple: Right to Repair Roundup).

I wish I had a transcript of this video for those who don’t have the time  to watch it – or prefer to read rather than watch. I’ll mention some high spots and I ask readers to forgive any transcription errors.

Wozniak discussed the open source environment and thriving repair culture that once prevailed not all that long ago for radios and TVs. Manufacturers shipped devices  with schematics and technical specifications, and used standard, widely available parts. Consumers were themselves able to open up these devices, remove tubes, and take them along to local shops and grocery stores to test the tubes and replace those that were causing the malfunctions. Alternatively, a consumer could take the broken device to a local repair shop – every town had one – and have them fix the device.

Then, unlike now, it wasn’t necessary to return the device to the manufacturer or an authorized repair facility to fix it. Nor was it necessary to toss a malfunctioning device onto the trash heap because the cost of repair was too high.

Electronics enthusiast were able to take the standard parts, and schematics, and build devices. Wozniak himself built his first computers, using open source inputs, and schematics, and a personal TV. Although this was not an area I was particularly interested in, I recall when I first entered MIT in the autumn of 1979, many of my classmates were using devices they’d built themselves.

The phone company was another matter entirely. At that time, Ma Bell still had a monopoly, and Wozniak relates how “you were not allowed to touch the telephone lines in your home with anything electronic…. No one was allowed to manufacture a telephone or answering machine – even though they could build much better ones than Ma Bell.”

A bit of a digression here. For those of us who lived through that period, Lily Tomlin’s incomparable Ernestine, the telephone operator, memorably satirized Ma Bell’s monopolistic machinations – and abysmal customer service.

Back to Wozniak. Those who repaired or designed new devices, relied on using standard parts, and specifications, to fit the parts in a way that either fixed their device or created a new one. Now, if a user destroys a product by messing around with it, that’s on you – or as Wozniak said, “that’s your tough luck, you lost your product.”

But rather than stopping there, and saying game over, and incidentally, giving the lie to one of the principal arguments made by today’s Apple for blocking a right to repair – that tinkerers will destroy their products, or even hurt themselves – Wozniak instead maintained, “But, you know, If you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing certain steps that others have solved and found that you know worked pretty well, you can repair a lot of things, at low cost, but, it’s even more precious to know that you did it yourself. So, why stop them? Why stop the self-repair community? Why stop the right to repair people?”

Wozniak described how the Apple II was shipped with full schematics and designs. “And software source listings. Code listings. Totally open source. The Apple II was modifiable and extendable.” Users modified, improved, and upgraded it, so the modified machines had functions that products as shipped did not.

“This product was the only source of profits for Apple for the first ten years of the company,” Wozniak explained. “This was not a minor product and it was not that successful on pure luck. There were a lot of good things about that being so open that everyone could join the party.”

Wozniak believed such a freewheeling environment produced a better outcome than a locked down, protective one would have. “Sometimes, when companies cooperate together with others, they can actually have better business than if they’re totally protective and monopolistic, and working with others, just totally competitive.”

Wozniak questioned whether such an environment hurt Apple – if at all. Instead, he believed it “was very motivating for creative minds. Believe me. That’s how I grew up.”

He concluded by laying out his rationale for supporting the right to repair (which, incidentally, I couldn’t have expressed better myself). “Anyway, it’s time to recognize the right to repair more fully. I believe that companies inhibit it because it gives the companies power… you know, control… you know, over everything. And I guess in a lot of people’s minds, power over others equates to money and profits. Hey. Is it your computer? Or is it some company’s computer? Think about that. It’s time to start doing the right things.”

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  1. spichai

    I not for requiring the use standard parts and repair friendly device packaging. I’m even ok with thus stupid “Void Warranty” sticker, but using monopoly power or the force of law to block owners from either bricking or tricking their own device is totally bogus. I respect Tim Cooks concern regarding the iPhone ecosystem, but his paternalism is short sighted and just plain wrong. John Deere, on the otherhand, total douchebag!

  2. Rolf

    Great video. I’m also from this age of Heathkits, crystal sets, tube testers, and so. We deeply impoverish society, particularly young people with ambition and curiosity, and foster a throwaway, disposable culture, by denying people the ability to fix, tinker, modify, improve, etc., goods they own. As Steve says, “it’s time to do the right thing.”

    1. Carolinian

      Bring back Radio Shack! I have stereo speakers that I made myself using parts from Radio Shack. Where would you find such things now?

      Amazon, I guess.

      1. marku52

        I repair old guitar amps and stereo gear. when someone calls about something I’ve never heard of, I ask them “How old is it? If it’s 50 years old I can fix it for sure. If it’s 3, I probably can’t”

        So it goes. Surface mount class D is not friendly to your local repair guy.

      2. Rolf

        As kids in the early 60s, we would spend all Saturday afternoon at Radio Shack. At one point RS was the largest electronics chain; you could buy anything there. And the staff were often hobbyists themselves, knew their stuff. So much lost.

  3. Carolinian

    But was Woz willing to put the blame on Steve “beautiful machine” Jobs and his zeal for marketing over practicality? One thing you can say in defense of Bill Gates is that computers (not named Apple) in his era were generic devices that could take all kinds of add on hardware and even be easily converted to Linux.

    Jobs was the “walled garden” advocate on the basis that total manufacturer control produced more reliable computing. It wasn’t that much of a leap for this to be corrupted into batteries glued to the motherboard of smartphones when they could just as easily be made removable.

    1. Mr. Magoo

      I think the objective Jobs was optimizing was minimizing the myriad of hardware support that was required in the Windows ecosystem. For Apple, everything worked ‘better’ – you just hard far less options at a higher price.

  4. TimH

    The maker mentality is very strong in Shenzhen, and a lot of the little modules that you can buy come from there, made by tiny outfits in small batches. There’s also a tube hifi industry there, with a lot of innovations such as amps using pentodes (high power, but distortion because the gain has a kink) switchable to triode mode (lower power, low distortion).

    I distinctly remember when flying models changed from balsa kits to blown moulding fuselages plus obechi veneer covered foam wings. Western hobbies have moved from building a skill set to make something, to building a skill set to use something. From maker hobby to consumer hobby, if you like.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Your observation of a transition from maker hobby to consumer hobby is very perceptive, and very disturbing.

  5. RMO

    Not a surprise that Wozniak has this view – especially when you remember one of the first things he made and sold were Blue Boxes: electronic devices that allowed the user to control telephone routing and make long distance calls for free!

  6. Angie Neer

    I fully support restoring and protecting right to repair. And I’m an engineer who thinks fondly of the Good Old Days when I could build something useful from parts bought at Radio Shack. But I think this discussion can be distorted by nostalgia. Back in the Heathkit/Radio Shack days, the labor and technology used to build a stereo in a factory was not very different from what a hobbyist could do. In both cases you had people sitting at benches soldering wires and turning screwdrivers; the factory was just highly optimized for efficiency. But now, the technology and tools used to make consumer goods are completely out of reach for most individuals. That’s because we the people want stuff that uses high technology to do everything, and we want it dirt cheap. Some repairability issues do stem from corporate money-grubbing and rentierism, but many spring more fundamentally from consumer demand for stuff that’s cheap to buy (perhaps not the same as cheap to own).

    1. Carolinian

      Of course. But iPhones aren’t dirt cheap and there’s no reason why the batteries and even screens couldn’t be made easy to replace. I can do both on my Chromebook and it isn’t particularly advanced.

    2. Old Jake - Feeling Crochety Sometimes

      Do you follow the electronics sub at reddit? People commonly diagnose and repair smd component circuit boards, such as video graphics cards. I would need tools that compensate for my aging and shaky appendages, but the younger set may not. Recall the part about repair shops. Those folks are likely to invest a bit in equipment out of reach of the everyday consumer. That should not mean that the manufacturers may prevent anyone but those willing to pay through the nose to be a manufacturers rep from participating in the business. The monopolists have shouldered an entire industry into the ditch.

      Even then there were parts and equipment that was tossed if it went bad. Ever tried to construct a vacuum tube? I thought not. Transistors – that we used to buy at Lafayette Electronics or the ARRL member favored hobby shop out near the airport (and even now I can buy at my local Radio Shack, some people have kept the brand alive) are not repairable but may be desoldered and replaced.

      My dad and I built several of those Heathkits – remember too that Heathkit got its start selling kits designed around WWII surplus stuff that cost very little. Then I bought more because I enjoyed the activity – built the VTVM, the oscilloscope, the RF signal generator, the passive load for audio amplifiers – and did the electronics technician track at the local community college where I helped built their first set of microcomputer trainers (more Heathkit, by then in the mid ’70s). Went on to get my engineering degree, paid via tuition reimbursement while working for a Fortune 100 company building test instrumentation.

    3. Amfortas the hippie

      lol. not everybody wants high tech everything.
      our washing machine is doing weird things…sticking in spin cycle and shutting down.
      it’s “smart”, but not real smart(like my mom’s, which talks and sings to her, and which i cannot operate, at all)
      i purposefully got the “stupidest” machine i could find(kenmore)
      but even so, it has a motherboard, and is beyond my skill to heal.
      the W/D we got for our wedding, 22 years ago, lasted 15 years…outside, on the porch, no less(i refuse to keep washers in the house…the inevitable catastrophic failure mode is far too messy).
      this one is less than 5 years old, on a detached “porch like structure” purpose-built(“the Warshhouse”, of course)….and will likely have to be converted into another big pot for plants, as well as another compost bin…and we’ll be forced to get an even “smarter” one.
      I want, essentially, an on/off switch, and nothing else…i have no need for machinesongs or “delicate” and wash and fold processes.
      we use only cold water, organic soap(potassium hydroxide based, instead of sodium hydroxide) and it drains to several field lines that water various trees and a bunch of blackberries along a fence.we lift the drainhose out and between the several standpipes so as not to over/under water.
      about as low tech as you can get and still be using electricity.
      i want my machinery to gel with that ethos, darnit….and i would also love to be able to stick some chewed up 3 cent gum on the lid switch when it fails…or cracker rig whatever other repairs as needed…but noooo….i opened the thing up, and didn’t recognise a single thing, except a couple of wires(i’m familiar with wires)…just a black box…which is apropos, i suppose.
      end luddite ramble.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Know how you feel. We had a toaster go bung on us a week or so ago and it only took a few seconds to realize that it was cheaper to replace than to try to have repaired. And I don’t even know of a place that you could take it to be repaired. And a toaster is about as basic tech as you can get. When I was a kid you could take them apart to fix if needed yourself. But that was then and this is now.

        1. Sue inSoCal

          Indeed Rev Kev! My father taught me to repair irons and simple appliances, rewire lamps, easy stuff. I soon learned to solder at the auto shop in high school and fix/maintain my own cars but that sure was a different world. When my goofy fancy washer went off the rails, the manufacturer advised me it was just “old” – it was old all right, 4 years! It’s still truckin after I messed around with it. As someone else noted, I’m an absolute Luddite about all these appliances hooked to the Internet. Nooo!

          Here’s good news though: saved my “old” MacBook to live another day. Quantum of Self Fix….

      2. Greg

        It’s not luddite at all (by the modern meaning) – wanting to repair and care for the machine is entirely different to wanting to smash the machine. I don’t believe you’re opposed to new technologies, you just want them to be humane and under your control. That seems reasonable to me.

        In the older meaning, I believe we’ve also seen evidence over the transom at NC that luddites were more akin to anti-capitalists than anti-technologists.

        ETA: my own recent version is that the flex point on my sandwich press has broken the wiring. It works if bent the way it is inclined to, but not otherwise. I could fix this with a little googling and soldering, but if anything ever went wrong my insurance wouldn’t cover any fire, so it’s not worth the cost and I have to buy a new one. They would of course cover a fire caused by cheap shoddy manufacture if done by an approved factory.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          i have a sandwich press, too…but it’s made of cast iron and is prolly 100 years old(i’ve never used it, being a griddle and spatula guy). found it in my grandmother’s barn.
          no wires…although it serves pretty well as a cudgel.

          as for “luddism”…yes, the modern meaning is “antitech”…and that’s how i was using it up there.
          the real meaning, as in King Ludd, is near and dear to me.
          the only book i managed to read last year, E.P Thompson’s “Making of the English Working Class” dealt pretty thoroughly with all that.
          we considered naming our bar in the wilderness Ludd’s Lodge, or something, but couldn’t think of anything that really rolled off any of our tongues.
          i did a lot of regurgitation of Thompson last year over there, with eldest’s buddies…like an old stork daddy, or something.
          (realtor trying to sell the mountain a mile back has in his ad “virgin timber”…which that place is NOT,lol…so that’s what the little sign says by the gate to get back there, right behind the bar. we had much laughter upon reading his description of the place)

          i like things that work, and that last, and that stand up to use….and i’ll pay extra for those qualities.
          and i really like things that i can fix…especially with something on hand(hence all the debris i collect,lol).
          electric drills come and go(i like dewalt), but my 100 yo brace and bit is forever.

          1. Greg

            Sounds like a great place to sink a pint or three, scandalously promiscuous trees or otherwise.
            I figure we’ll know we’re doing the economy right when we can find quality hand tools first hand again. Call it the sustainable tool indicator (STI) and I’m sure it’ll be catching.

      3. hunkerdown

        When I lived out in the sticks as a kid, our power feed was about 3 miles of inside wire off the transformer. Utility engineers install capacitors around the grid to compensate the wire’s self-inductance (which is proportional to length). We had an EE in the family who helped us do the same, so that grandma could have a warshing machine without risking her soap operas or the Radarange.

        All that equipment was far less sensitive to dirty power than the controller in your warsher, which was designed for a less hostile mains and has limited ability to absorb abuse. After all these years, the surge suppressors on it have worn down enough to let the spikes through to the processor, which now has syncope due to the voltage spikes/dips caused by normal warsher operation. Just for giggles, try adding a heavy-duty surge suppressor to the plug out there (what’s six more feet of cable in this scheme of things) and see if it papers over the problem for a few years longer. Maybe you need capacitors out there too. Also check your grounding.

        If you’re not up to fixing that branch of the power system properly, or you find an alternate project more appealing, maybe the service manual for that thing can be found online. If you’re really lucky, it gives enough info to show whether the actuators on the machine are directly powered by the mains or whether they need a simple step-down transformer, and so can be straightforwardly wired to a bank of toggle switches to give it the correct and desired level of intelligence.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          i love NC

          when i go into yonder hardware store, with the pretty lady running things, and ask for a “surge protector”….she points to the power strips.
          when i protest that …no, in line…she points to the aisle where the circuit breakers are kept.
          what, exactly, do you mean?

          we’re at the end of the big truck rout, out here.
          may as well be 1965(if not late 1800’s), as far as a lot of things are concerned.

          1. hunkerdown

            Some brands do offer little in-line cubes with the varistors inside, if you don’t want to consume all that space, and I would first look for them directly by the power strips. But either strip or cube or any that calls itself a surge suppressor on the package would work well enough to prove out the theory. Do make certain the device you buy specifically claims surge suppression/protection, and is not simply a big gang of outlets on a cord.

      4. d w

        i have no problem with simple, just expect it to cost more, since the market likes the new technology.
        OEMs might even love that, as they can increase the price, since they dont build many of them. fair? maybe not, but producing what the majority wants (whether simpler…or higher technology, costs more, basically cause producing lots of the same thing is cheaper than producing few will)

    4. d w

      i suppose that if the OEM wants to forbid right to repair, they get a choice, but the device back, or essentially approve non affiliated repair shops, failing that, they dont get the right to forbid, with any penalties

  7. Jack Parsons

    Whether or not the consumer benefits from these laws is not politically important.

    The military has a major “right to repair” problem, and they have better lobbyists :)

    1. d w

      yea, they do. and i dont know how many OEMs will willing want to send repairman to active combat zones, on demand when needed, on short notice. some how i doubt they thought through

      but like lots of stupid things, this is from Congress , because lobbyists, and $$$$$, plus some just have this ideological predilection to have the ‘market; do it, sort of like on base housing, and we see how badly that worked out.
      guessing this is just another mess waiting to happen

  8. Pat

    I am going to be a Luddite. There is no reason for internet connected everything. I thought internet connected washing machines were disasters waiting to happen until I saw the ad for internet connected faucets, because water and electronics are so compatible.

    I am appalled that planned obsolescence has infected all levels of our everyday life. Yes keeping the boiler functioning in the building I work at is difficult, but funnily enough most of our repair problems come from the controllers and human failure, not the bits that were built five decades or more ago. Furnaces, pumps, refrigerators, Ovens, washers, dryers without all the relatively useless “improvements” from the last several decades could last ten or twenty times longer than the modern versions. But they cannot be found, not because they aren’t good enough but because manufacturers want their products to fail within a certain time line.

    There are exceptions to only wanting relatively basic machinery, but we no longer are even allowed that option most of the time.

    (I also don’t think I should have to “rent” software. Most people do not need constant word processing and spreadsheet software Updates. Even basic photo printing and editing programs should be upgraded when the USER wants new abilities and they should be able to purchase it and be left alone.)

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