If You Can't Open Up Your Smartphone, Do You Really Own It?

Photographer: Peer Grimm/dpa/Corbis
Broken iPhone.

A mile-long queue formed outside London's flagship Apple store last month in the now-ritualistic rush of fans eager to be among the first to get the latest iPhones.

The global release also condemned millions of older smartphones to an existence of gathering dust in a drawer or sitting in a landfill. Some are likely to be in perfect working order, while others will have a cracked screen or a faulty battery. But why bother repairing it when you can just have a new one?

Regarding electronic devices as disposable items is a mentality Ugo Vallauri wants to change.

"If the front wheel on someone's bike breaks, no one in their right mind would throw it away without trying to fix it," said Vallauri, an Italian researcher. "But if it was the screen on an iPhone that broke, people are more likely to just give up on it."

Frustrated by what he calls the passive acceptance of wastefulness and barriers put up by manufacturers who don't want consumers to tinker with the devices, he set up The Restart Project with activist Janet Gunter in 2012. The London-based charity's mission? To change people's relationships with their electronic devices and re-establish a culture of repair.

"The only way people can economically repair a lot of products is by retrieving the parts directly from the manufacturer," said Vallauri, who pointed out how consumers won't open up their devices for fear of invalidating the warranty.

And while there are thousands of authorized and unauthorized repair shops, Vallauri wants consumers to be more hands-on with their handsets, which can be good for the wallet and the environment.

To encourage this, the organization hosts parties where people sit with one of the group's trained "Re-starters" who can help them fix their devices as well as teach them the inner workings of the gadgets, all for free.

At the 40 U.K. parties Restart has held, the group has had an "on the spot" success rate of more than 50 percent, which translates to roughly a thousand repaired devices, according to Vallauri. In the cases where something can't be fixed on-site, the staff can guide people on what they need to finish the job, and where to get it.

Vallauri and Gunter have been sufficiently encouraged by the reaction in the U.K. to expand overseas, hosting their first Restart Party in Rome this month.

The project has no illusions about the challenges it faces. The smartphone business depends on convincing consumers to dump their not-so-old devices, broken or not, for the latest offerings. Apple sold 9 million new iPhones during the new models' debut weekend alone last month.

Gunter advocates working with the companies to show them that users who tinker with their devices aren't the enemy, as voided warranties over opened products suggest.

"Companies could segment their market into people obsessed with change who are happy to pay a premium, and those who will respect the brand more if they're given control over how long they can use the product," she said.

The Restart Project can point to Patagonia as an example that such an approach could work. The outdoor-clothing maker increased its sales by almost 38 percent over two years, after publically imploring customers to use its products longer and offering a repair service to facilitate that.

Another company that's pushing for product longevity is Dutch startup Fairphone. It has produced the world's first ethically sourced smartphone, which is designed to be opened and repaired by the consumer. It even comes with an instruction manual.

As Vallauri says: If you can't open your phone, you really don't own it at all.

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