A recent independent study funded by Microsoft showed that improving repair processes can reduce greenhouse gases and e-waste. But it’s easy to “study” a problem, it’s harder to solve. Unfortunately, Microsoft has destroyed its best tool for addressing repairability – the brick-and-mortar Microsoft Stores.
In many ways, this is a story as old as Microsoft. The company has a bad habit of trying to create or imitate a good idea, get nothing with it and then give up – only for another company to come along and do it better. Before the iPad, there was the Microsoft Surface (the giant coffee table touchscreen). Before the iPhone there was Windows Mobile. Before the Apple Watch, there was Microsoft Spot. Before Google Earth, there was Terraserver.
And those are just ideas it’s tried to come up with, not to mention those it’s tried to borrow from other companies like Zune, Windows Phone, and the Microsoft Store. All “failures” by reasonable standards. But the last one, the Microsoft Store? It could be the key to Microsoft’s promise to support the right-to-repair drive.
Microsoft says the right to repair is important
Though one could argue it’s a reluctant agreement, Microsoft says the right to repair and environmental sustainability are important goals. Like most tech giants, it has long contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste, whether through its massive number of server farms or the creation of nearly impossible-to-repair devices. But “throw away and buy new” is neither sustainable nor good for anyone.
Luckily, organizations like iFixit and As You Sow have worked to change the way companies design electronics and fought to make repairability for all devices accessible to everyone. These drives have led to changes at Microsoft and other companies — while the original Surface Laptop received a whopping 0 out of 10 repairability scores, the third-gen version improved its score to 5 out of 10. That’s a long way from true repairability, as found on the Framework laptop, but it’s still a notable improvement.
That pressure led Microsoft to fund a study that unsurprisingly found that “all forms of repair offer significant benefits in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste reduction.” Put simply, repairing is good for the environment. It’s also good for the consumer, as it avoids spending money to replace something that would otherwise have worked for years. Think back to the backlash when Apple admitted to slowing down iPhones, leading to new iPhone purchases when a battery swap would have solved the problem.
The fact is, whether you want to repair your device to avoid buying a new one or to help the environment, repairability should be a right accessible to all. Everyone should be able to either repair their devices or contact a qualified person to get the job done. And for too long, the design of our electronics and the practices of the companies that developed them have prevented this.
Microsoft says it takes repairability seriously, and lately some of its actions suggest this is true. The company recently partnered with iFixit to make spare parts more accessible, and it has released this study that openly suggests what the company should do going forward. But a study is nothing more than words if no one carries out its proposals. And unfortunately, Microsoft has already discontinued its best tool for making repairability more accessible to everyone: the Microsoft Store.
The Microsoft Store was the solution
You might not even know it, but not long ago Microsoft launched a series of retail stores known as the Microsoft Store (not to be confused with the App Store known as the Microsoft Store). At first glance, it seemed like Microsoft had merely copied the Apple Store format, down to part of the look. In fairness, it was another example of Microsoft trying to replicate the success of another company. In fact, Microsoft chose to open most of its stores across from or in close proximity to existing Apple Stores, which didn’t help the copy-paste appearance.
But look past the superficial (pun intended) similarities of tables to tablets and laptops, and you’d find some pretty stark differences between the Apple Store and the Microsoft Store. I know because I worked in a Microsoft Store for almost three years. My time there was incredibly educational, and when Microsoft closed all of its stores, I grieved for the communities left behind.
Finally, the Microsoft Stores invested in communities by directing donations in dollars and employee time to local nonprofits, Boy Scout and Boy Scout clubs, and by providing free training to anyone who wanted it. And Microsoft offered free services not found at the Apple Store, like free virus removal, PC tuning, and more.
Unfortunately, the quest for profitability and insistence on expensive locations (often in malls) near Apple Stores, coupled with the growing pandemic, likely led to the decision to close all stores. And it’s a shame because Microsoft Stores did something different than Apple Store – fix devices the company didn’t even make.
Of course, you can take your damaged Surface tablet to a Microsoft Store for repair. Unfortunately, because Surface devices were so unrepairable (which is true of the Surface Pro to this day), they were never repaired in the field. Instead, Microsoft employees exchanged the tablet for a new or refurbished device and sent the damaged one in for repair. But you could also get laptops and desktops fixed at the Microsoft Store, even if Dell, Acer, or other companies (besides Apple) made it.
That’s what my job at the Microsoft Store was: removing viruses, fixing problems with Outlook and Word, and fixing broken laptops and desktops. This has included swapping out old graphics cards, swapping out hard drives and transferring data, and even swapping out laptop keyboards and displays. We couldn’t fix every laptop (UltraBooks were nearly beyond repair), but in some cases where we didn’t have the tools on hand, we were able to ship units to a better equipped facility that could do more than the store.
That’s important because Microsoft’s study found that offering repair options dramatically reduces emissions and waste. The study specifically states: “Enabling repair through device design, spare parts offerings and localization of repair [has] significant potential to reduce carbon and waste emissions.” The localization of repair part is crucial because if you have to drive too far for repairs, the greenhouse gases your vehicle emits will offset the savings generated by repairs. But how far is too far? According to the study, driving 189 miles to fix a Surface Pro 8 would negate the emissions saved.
189 miles is quite a stretch, and if that’s your next option, you’d probably rather send the unit in for repairs anyway. But if it were closer, then there would be security in going to work with someone personally as far as the repair process goes. Before nearly all stores were closed, Microsoft had 116 stores, over 80 of which offered repair services. That’s 80 locations in four countries where people could drive less than 189 miles to get repairs. And now that’s not an option.
What Microsoft should do
Microsoft says it takes the right to repair and environmental protection seriously. If that’s true, he should put his money where his mouth is. It takes some tough decisions and spending money, but all good things do. Stylish but unrepairable laptops and tablets need to be a thing of the past, and the company should continue the trend of building devices where repair is a viable option.
But that’s not much use if there isn’t an easy way to get these devices repaired. And to that end, Microsoft should reopen its stores – but with a new mission in new locations. Instead of copying Apple Stores and going to expensive mall retail locations, the Microsoft Store should go in a different direction. After all, the Microsoft Store was at its best when it wasn’t trying to be an Apple Store.
Microsoft should open stores in accessible locations with a focus on repair, training and help. Surface tablet and laptop sales could continue, but as a side business rather than a target for profitability. Imagine if the Microsoft Store was a place to learn how to use your new laptop, no matter who made it. You can go to the Microsoft Store for help if you encounter a problem. And if you drop your laptop or tablet, the Microsoft Store could be there to fix it.
Of course, opening a new store in every city around the world isn’t sustainable either, but it’s one area where Microsoft could expand on its old mission. The Microsoft Store could be a place to learn how to repair devices. Whether as a professional or as a technology enthusiast. By partnering with organizations like iFixit, Microsoft could enable authorized repair centers of the future — it could train the corner shops you rely on to fix your broken HP laptop.
Additionally, the Microsoft-funded study mentioned that shipping a device for repair or refurbishment isn’t helpful in the long run if air freight to China is required. Microsoft could turn its stores into depots to send devices to anyone who still lives too far away to drive. The Microsoft Store can perform these repairs or ship them in bulk to a location where the work can be done.
The Microsoft Store could have been the place to learn how to repair your device, buy the tools and parts you need to repair it, or take your device with you when the damage is beyond your capabilities. Unfortunately they are all closed and that is not the case. For now, all we have is a promise that Microsoft will do something. Only time will tell if this is just words and study.
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