WSJ: consumers should be allowed to repair their gadgets

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Interesting article, full of small contradictions.

Why buy that particular tractor? No backup tractor? He spends all day fixing things but has a yard full of rusty unfixed ones? He hasn’t developed a personal relationship to a certified JD mechanic who understands the timeliness aspect of farming and equipment repairs? Sounds, overall, like a lot of poor planning.

As far as John Deere, it’s like all vehicles today. They are run by software and systems that a consumer has no control over. If you don’t like it, get something reliable that won’t break, buy something older that you can repair yourself, get a reputable mechanic, or many other options. But at the least, go in with a clear understanding of what it is that you’re spending your hard earned money on. It’s the same as long cell phone contracts, Microsoft bloatware, unfixable TVs and electronics: they have you over a barrel at every turn. So get wise to their tricks.


The iconic image of the American farmer is the man or woman who works
the land, milks cows and is self-reliant enough to fix the tractor.

And we’ll just go ahead and perpetuate that myth for you…

also, article title says WSJ, link says NPR…?

I’ve been seeing phone repair businesses pop up and I can’t imagine how they make a living. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that starving in your own business beats starving in somebody else’s. But I’ve always wondered just how legal these guys are. I don’t much care if they’re robbing Apple blind, but it makes me wonder where the lawyers all went.


Farming is an unglamourous but hugely important profession that has as much to do with the security and well being of the nation as military service. Deadlines just cannot be negotiated, and the wrong policy decision often can’t be fixed with a simple do-over.

In one afternoon, Congress could cite the Patriot Act for something useful for once, declare any laws and policies that hinder the national food supply null and void, and let the big business fight the government instead of the little guy.


Sometimes the options you got are fairly restricted. Sometimes you don’t know in advance. Most of the times you know enough only after the act.

And that’s why we need robust reverse engineering (and code visualisation, and so on) tools. Why the barrier to entry has to be as low as possible, the lab/shop equipment as cheap and open as possible. Because then we will have more of the vanguards opening the closed stuff for us.

We are already allowed to repair and mod everything - to the degree of how far we can enforce our will with our tools and how much documentation we can reverse-engineer, leak, or otherwise obtain. Having that legally enforced would just make it (way) easier.

I worked in one such semi-shady shop in mid-ish 90’s, albeit in a different jurisdiction. Back then it was to a high degree about buying subsidized phones in one market, and unlocking them. Part of the unlocks was even done on my software, an EEPROM dumping and comparison tool. (Which got obsoleted when the manufacturers started storing settings in flash instead of in a discrete 24Cxx chip, and the market got dominated by custom-made tools from Russia and Bulgaria - boxes with cable adapters, just connect the phone and press a button. I even assisted with buying one, as a translator, in an underground garage in a neighbouring country. Oh the times…!)

I invented a way to use wristwatch band attachment pins as cheap and easily available pogo pins for attaching comm adapters to pads on circuitboards, for certain Motorola phones, and a way to make connectors from discrete pins (new or salvaged) and epoxy putty. And my RS232-UART adapters were known as having the best quality of solder joints in the local underground. I may still have a few leftover MAX232 chips from that era…

Didn’t pay much (to a high degree because I was a lousy negotiator) but the experiences gained were priceless.

Things changed a lot since back then, with the advent of the Internet and eBay and Aliexpress. A lot of the knowledge got democratized. A lot of the underlying technology changed in many ways. So I can’t say in any authoritative way how does it look today, and even back then I didn’t see much into the business side of the things.


I don’t know how the supply chain works for aftermarket replacement parts(eg. harvested from phones killed by a problem with a different FRU? ‘ghost shift’ manufactured by the same OEMs who make the real thing? Mechanically interoperable copy from 3rd party?); but, to the degree that the model is viable, I imagine that the fact that people utterly freak out if denied their phone for even a short time(not everyone; but some kids these days…); and the fact that many fixes require fiddly and practiced manual work; but are not necessarily terribly difficult if you have the experience and the right tools; or terribly expensive if you purchase replacement parts in decent quantity through the right channels, is the source of the potential profit margin for repairers.

Most non-Apple handset suppliers have no repair-capable retail presence(and carrier-affiliated storefronts have a duty to customer abuse and neglect, being telco affiliated); and even Apple won’t save you if you aren’t near one of their locations; and might charge you fairly enthusiastically if your problem isn’t covered.

It wouldn’t wholly surprise me if some margins are being padded with chop-shop parts; but there is enough of a potential value proposition that I wouldn’t assume that it is required for such a business to survive.


Back Then we did that. My first cellphone was even entirely built from spare FRUs harvested from e-corpses (hand-picked board with the most sensitive RF front-end and the controller board with the most recent firmware; I was pointed to the cabinet with the boards and instructed to pick the best). That cheap Dancall rivaled in performance even the way more expensive models. :smiley:

…I have to learn working with BGAs… we didn’t have to cope with those Back Then. Good old times. I hate BGAs…


A lot of them do the bulk of their work in screen repair, which is also the part that breaks the most obviously. Replacing a screen once you’ve got the tools and the know-how is pretty fast, but it’s not something your average user will be able to reasonably attempt.

Considering that a new phone, off-contract, can cost upwards of $600, repairing a phone (in whatever capacity) can be a huge savings. If there’s a more involved hardware repair, most people are happy to lose their data in order to get a working phone.


This was settled in the automotive industry with the “Right to repair” legislation (’_Right_to_Repair_Act"). I would think equipment should be covered in the same vein.


It would. Something I’ve been mulling is why there aren’t more open source cars, tractors and utility vehicles? The idea is old, going back to at least 1999 with the OScar. Now, there is this. And this guy tilting at windmills… admirably… But I am still scratching my head about scratch-built machinery. Is it because machinery is metal that people avoid Open Source builds? Or is it the road laws?

I hear lots and lots of people say “I’m building a house.” And mean it, that they are lifting the hammer and actually constructing the place, probably hire out the foundation pour, electrical, plumbing and roof but they take on the structure and much of the finish work as a project. Lots of people. I’ve done it, my grandfathers have, etc.

And I see lots of friends repairing their cars or restoring classic vehicles in their garages. Highly skilled engineers, these people.

I even know a guy who built his own functioning airplane.

But I never hear of anyone saying, “I’m building a car.” Or, “I’m building an open source car.” Nada. Why?


An open source car would mean every individual who builds one would then be a manufacturer, and would have to have their car meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) to become road legal in the US, which requires third-party destructive testing and is very expensive.

The closest thing to what you’re asking for would be any of the numerous kit-car companies who either have the scale necessary to get their vehicle approved or use chassis/powertrains already approved by the FMVSS made by any of the big auto companies.

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OK, say I use an FMVSS chassis & powertrain… nobody said I had to have the rest of it commercially manufactured, did they? In fact, it would be good to base the chassis on something known, for easy replacement in case of disaster. Still, this is a little-traveled path, and of course biased by my own sphere of experience, but I never hear of people building their own car. I have thought about it, since it would be nerdy and technical fun. I’m building a plasma table right now, though. Maybe when I’m done with that, I’ll use it for car parts. & if it doesn’t work when I’m done building it, I’ll use it for car parts. :wink:

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I’ve definitely watched too many of those car/truck mod shows over the years, but it’s left me with the strong impression that you could build an entire car out of after-market replacement parts, from chassis and axles to interior trim. If you really wanted to.


same can be said of laptops, which while I like using and have proper tools to do the work sometimes I just think new system board? eff it I am getting a new machine cause it is such a pain to take it all apart put it back together. then throw in the new ultra thin things that are pretty much designed to never be worked on.

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Here, an electric one I am kibitzing for.

And there are quite some other such projects.


The cost factor is one - if I make a mistake while building my PC or even my cellphone, it’s easily fixed at a relatively affordable cost - just buy a new one. A car isn’t so easy, so you want a professional designing and building it.

A bit of a fallacy, but it’s a deterrent…

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Nobody builds a blank-sheet car from the ground up due to the cost and legal issues, but plenty build kit cars or build their own Frankenstein’s monster out of other cars; that a large part of what ‘hot rodding’ and customization is all about. If you look into it you’ll see there is a very diverse range of gearheads building all sorts of custom vehicles.


I wonder how much longer 3rd-party part-recombination will continue to be possible.

Aside from contemporary manufacturing techniques making rework trickier, it is much more likely that the main SoC will (or will be capable of, some manufacturers don’t care enough to bother enabling it) cryptographically verify whatever it is asked to boot before booting it; and the number of important peripheral components that also have considerable embedded intelligence has increased.

Nobody is going to start putting TPMs in surface mount resistors or anything, that’d be a pure waste of time; but things like displays and camera modules are much higher value parts and already have sophisticated controller ICs anyway, so adding enough ‘security’ features to make a real nuisance of yourself would add only a small amount of die space, and no additional packaging cost or similar.

If, hypothetically, I were a hardware manufacturer and feeling malevolent, I’d go over my device design and identify the parts that are relatively high value, replaceable, and equipped with a reasonably intelligent embedded controller: That would presumably be the SoC, display, camera module, cell baseband(if not integrated into the SoC), and possibly the flash (SATA has an explicit standard for this “TCG Opal”, I don’t know that eMMC does, but SATA drives that don’t implement ‘TCG Opal’ and eMMC both have uniquely serialized data).

The SoC(as we’ve already seen with depressingly increasing frequency) has robust support for lockdown: once your public key is burned in, payloads not signed by you are going nowhere, barring a shoddy implementation.

Next up would be the peripherals: if cost allows, each peripheral identified as high value gets a unique keypair(signed by me, so no, you can’t just generate a new one, though you might be able to extract one) to go along with its serial number and manufacturing data, also signed.

Ideally, the first stage of the boot process will involve a bidirectional challenge/response session between the SoC and each of the high value peripherals: During the very first boot, at the factory, the SoC collects the public keys of all the peripherals, and each peripheral collects the public key of the SoC. On all subsequent boots, the SoC challenges each peripheral to test its knowledge of the corresponding private key; and if it succeeds, then accepts the peripheral’s challenge of its key.

If there are peripherals where adding this full capability would be too expensive or nonstandard(perhaps the eMMC, say) you could borrow a trick that, if memory serves, the Xbox used to lock out 3rd party HDDs: the hard drives were perfectly ordinary; but during manufacture MS pulled the serial number and any other device-unique information that was handy and accessible by standard methods, then signed the lot and wrote the signed file to the drive: it was trivial to access and copy this blob; but the console would query the drive information and check that it matched that in the signed file and that the signature was valid on every boot, so copying the blob only helped you if you could also modify the HDD’s manufacturing information. This would work for eMMC, RAM SPD flash ROMs, and anything else that can’t justify a full challenge-response capable crypto engine; but has a few kb of writeable space and some data burned in during manufacturing.

For extra fun, of course, and to make cloning more difficult, you could take advantage of the fact that phones tend to be internet connected(and certainly can be during the factory boot phase) and have each one phone home the IDs of all connected peripherals to the mothership during manufacturing and periodically thereafter.

Since keys and serialization data are signed by you; cloners cannot generate new serials that check out; only extract them from your parts. If they attempt to re-use an extracted value, your periodic checks will pick up the presence of duplicates of what should be a unique value. If they strictly stick to single re-use(say, pulling the signature data from the controller of a smashed screen to flash into a new screen) you won’t see this; but you severely limit their production rate.

If you are feeling egregiously nasty, you could even lock out ‘unauthorized’ repairs made with ‘legitimate’ parts: each unit ‘paired’ with its peripherals and reported their IDs at the factory, so it can recognize that a peripheral has been replaced and refuse to validate it(your ‘authorized’ repair people could submit a re-pairing request with the data of the two parts they are trying to connect; and if you approve you could provide a signed authorization manifest which the SoC would accept and initiate a new pairing based on).

Just think of the dystopian possibilities!

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Way I look at it, if we’re not allowed to fix our i-thingies, then why are replacement parts so damned easy to get (and cheap!) on the netwebz?