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Should the enterprise care about right-to-repair?

The right-to-repair movement appears to be gaining momentum, but is it really viable for enterprise IT?

People get smartphones and PCs repaired all the time, but do enterprises repair IT equipment? Should they? It's a bit complicated.

The right-to-repair (RtR) movement is driven by activists and professionals seeking changes in vendor policies and designs, as well as laws governing warranty, to enable owners of electronic devices to repair them.

The movement has been influential: In 2021, Apple and Microsoft both committed, within weeks of each other, to supporting some form of right to repair. The Biden administration also issued an Executive Order encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to allow the right to repair digital devices.

The same concerns are being heard in other markets, as everything is becoming more electronic. For instance, voters in Massachusetts passed a proposition mandating an increased level of cooperation by vehicle manufacturers with independent auto repair shops.

But what about enterprises and their own significant investments in IT equipment? You can make a case, in principle, that enterprises should want the ability to repair equipment as much as consumers, but the economics of the two markets are very different.

Consumer activism and RtR

"The goal of the Massachusetts 2021 law, as with all right-to-repair laws, is repair choice," says Kevin Purdy, a writer and repair advocate at iFixit, a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides repair tools and parts for a variety of digital devices. "If you can't fix it, or have the skilled, trusted person you choose to fix it, you don't really own it."

Intentionally, or not, digital device manufacturers long made it complicated to maintain repair support for their devices, so much so that in most cases, it's not worth it for consumers to pay the costs of a repair versus buying the new version of the same device. Indeed, iFixit has been relentless in exposing built-in design features that make it anywhere from difficult to impossible to independently repair many of the most popular consumer laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

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Right-to-repair activists argue that this doesn't have to be the case. They have long pointed to the fact that many components of smartphones and laptops are modular in nature—screens, batteries, cameras, control boards—and could be easily repaired or replaced by independent third parties if they had access to the necessary training and parts. On the other hand, iFixit's teardown efforts show when features that impede repairability have legitimate functions, such as how Samsung uses adhesive perimeters inside its phones to improve water resistance.

E-waste and the environmental angle

In the past several years, this argument has been amplified by activists who charge that the disposable nature of the digital device business model is becoming a major threat to the environment. According to the World Economic Forum, annual electronic waste worldwide is projected to grow from 53.6 million metric tons in 2019 to 74.7 in 2030. Along with that waste comes the added greenhouse gases emitted in the manufacture of new devices to replace the old ones headed to the landfill. The United Nations says that only 17.4 percent of e-waste created in 2019 was recycled, so repairing devices is a more effective practice for environmental protection than recycling alone.

It's not a big leap to assume that the recent announcements by Microsoft and Apple to reverse their long-standing opposition to right to repair are, in large part, a response to shareholder resolutions calling on the companies to become more environmentally responsible.

But does this seismic shift in the positions of two companies that have traditionally been most opposed to right to repair signal a similar transformation at the enterprise level?

The enterprise IT business model

The enterprise IT business model is designed to ensure that hardware, software, and related systems are kept safe, secure, and as up to date as needed for the most affordable price. Traditionally, this has meant scheduling a hardware equipment refresh and replacement every two to three years. But even this is evolving as separate upgrade schedules come into play to accommodate new hardware and data center architectures.

"In today's data centers, the hardware is now split into three different systems: high-end processing with CPUs, GPU servers, and pure data storage systems," according to a director-level engineer who oversees high-end CPU development and, along with several other experts interviewed for this article, preferred to remain anonymous due to his corporate position. "Each of these is now moving along different upgrade and refresh paths."

Software schedules are similar in design but more dependent upon the critical nature of the software to the business. Software that is critical to daily operations is always kept up to date on a regular basis. Driving that strategy is the need to keep security software always current. The schedule for non-critical software tends to be a little looser and often depends on the availability of new features. In general, major upgrades tend to occur every two to three years when existing service contracts tend to expire.

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Driving both enterprise hardware and software refresh and repair strategies is the need to maintain the warranty contracts covering them. "The golden years of enterprise servers are always before the warranty ends," says David Chant, senior desktop support analyst at "That's when enterprises tend to get rid of them. It's not because they are unaffordable to fix but because enterprises can't afford the downtime. I call it exchangeability replacement mentality."

There's a liability component to this strategy as well. "If a piece of equipment goes out of warranty," says Chant, "there's no financial incentive to have it repaired."

RtR and SaaS

Purdy of iFixit argues that enterprises don't have to walk away from this model to allow for right to repair. "One common misconception of RtR laws is that they would somehow negate, void, or otherwise interfere with warranties," says Purdy. "By law [the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act], warranties cannot be voided by reasonable repairs."

The simple fact is that several things could be repaired by an enterprise IT team. Replacing batteries, upgrading memory, and replacing hard drives are considered easy to do and depending on the supplier, allowed in certain organizations. Replacing screens and motherboards poses more of a problem. IT teams would need to be trained in their repair. "But that's not really an issue," says Keith Fenech, a technologist on the West Coast. "Organizations are content with hardware refresh."

While most hardware refreshment is now on three-year schedules, some companies are starting to extend these schedules, primarily because of hardware shortages due to COVID and related supply chain issues. But Fenech also believes that RtR will eventually have even less impact at the enterprise level as companies continue migrating to software as a service. "It's the SaaS environment that is continually upgrading. The hardware just needs to be a component," Fenech says.

Although Fenech believes the right to repair is a good idea, "it will eventually be swept away by SaaS." The reason is simple: When migrating to SaaS, the organization's hardware is also moving to the SaaS provider's data center. And as enterprises get out of the data center business, they will be less concerned with right to repair and upgrading software. "Enterprise laptops can become simpler because the engine is being pushed to the data center," Fenech says. "The headache moves to the SaaS provider."

He adds, "Legacy systems create even more of a headache. It's where, again, right to repair is a nice idea, but if the alternative is software that is backwards compatible, it needs to be made more cost effective." Simply put, enterprises modernizing their data centers get far better deals from vendors on massive volume purchases.

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Purdy doesn't dispute the point. "If an extended warranty or service contract makes the most sense for a business, they can and should use that option," Purdy says. But that doesn't preclude a role for right to repair in the enterprise. "A hospital may wish to stick to a service contract," he says, "but no respirator in a COVID-flooded hospital should fail to work simply because it needs to wait two weeks before an authorized service tech can get there."

An incentive to change

The bottom line is that for right to repair to gain real traction in the enterprise, something needs to change. "As business is now, where is there any real incentive to look at RtR?" says Fenech. "Enterprises don't want to spend more money. It's not like it's impossible. I think businesses may give lip service to this concept, but most are not prepared to do it."

And as organizations continue moving to SaaS and exiting the data center business, the need lessens for them to invest in smart hardware. "It's just not worth the effort at the corporate level to get into the repair business," he says.

Chant agrees. "Right now, there is no financial incentive to extend the life of electronic components," he says. "It's exactly the opposite. There's so much scale and efficiency in automation that there is no way to compete with those capabilities. If we reach a plateau, when we run out of resources, then the conversation will change. But something huge must happen. Something has to give to get people to wake up."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.