An independent study funded by Microsoft recently showed that improving repair processes could prevent greenhouse gases and avoid e-waste. But it is easy to “study” a problem, more difficult to solve it. Unfortunately, Microsoft has killed off its best tool for tackling repairability – the brick-and-mortar Microsoft Stores.
In many ways, it’s a story as old as Microsoft. The company has a bad habit of trying to create or emulate a good idea, going nowhere with it, then giving up, only for another company to come along and do better. Before the iPad, there was 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 he tried to create, not to mention those he tried to adapt from other companies, like Zune, Windows Phone, and the Microsoft Store. All “failures” by any reasonable measure. But the latter, the Microsoft Store? It might hold the key to Microsoft’s promise to back the Right to Repair drive.
Microsoft says right to repair is important
While it could be said to be a grudging deal, Microsoft says right to repair and environmental sustainability are important goals. Like most tech giants, it has a long history of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste, whether through its massive number of server farms or the creation of nearly impossible-to-repair gadgets. But “throw it out and buy new” isn’t sustainable or good for anyone.
Fortunately, organizations like iFixit and As You Sow have led the charge to change the way companies design electronics and are fighting to make repairability accessible to everyone for any device. These discs caused changes at Microsoft and other companies. While the original Surface Laptop got a whopping 0 out of 10 repairability score, the third-gen version improved its score to 5 out of 10. That’s still a long way to go to achieve true repairability, as seen found on the Framework laptop, but it’s a noticeable improvement nonetheless.
This pressure led Microsoft to fund a study that unsurprisingly determined that “all forms of repair offer significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste reduction benefits.” Simply put, repair is good for the environment. It’s also good for the consumer, as it saves 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 replacement would have fixed 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 available to everyone. Everyone should be able to either fix their appliances or turn to someone qualified to do the job. And for too long, the design of our electronic devices and the practices of the companies that created them have prevented that.
Microsoft says it takes repairability seriously, and some of its actions lately suggest that’s true. The company recently partnered with iFixit to make replacement parts more accessible, and it released this study which openly suggests what the company should do in the future. But a study is nothing more than words if no one follows up on its suggestions. And unfortunately for Microsoft, it has already shut down its best tool to make repairability more accessible to everyone: the Microsoft Store.
The Microsoft Store was the solution
You might not even realize it, but not too long ago Microsoft launched a series of outlets known as the Microsoft Store (not to be confused with the App Store known as Microsoft Store name). At first glance, it looked like Microsoft had simply copied the Apple Store format, down to part of the look. It was, in all honesty, another example of Microsoft trying to replicate the success of another company. Microsoft even chose to open most of its stores across from or very close to existing Apple Stores, which didn’t help the cut-and-paste aspect.
But look beyond the surface-level similarities (pun intended) of the tables containing tablets and laptops, and you’ll find some pretty stark differences between the Apple Store and the Microsoft Store. I know this because I worked at a Microsoft Store for almost three years. My time there was educational beyond belief, and when Microsoft closed all of its stores, I mourned the communities left behind.
After all, Microsoft Stores has invested in communities, channeling donations in the form of dollars and employee time to local nonprofits, Boy Scouts and Boy Scout clubs, and free training for anyone who wants it. wished. And Microsoft offered free services not found in the Apple Store, such as free virus removal, PC tune-ups, and more.
Alas, the drive for profitability and the insistence on expensive locations (often in malls) near Apple Stores, combined with the growing pandemic, likely led to the decision to close all stores. And it’s a shame because Microsoft Stores did something else that Apple Store doesn’t: fix devices that the company didn’t even make.
Of course, you can take your damaged Surface tablet to a Microsoft Store for repair. Unfortunately, because the Surface devices were so beyond repair (which is true of the Surface Pro to this day), they were never repaired on the spot. Instead, Microsoft employees traded the tablet in for a new or refurbished unit, then sent the damaged one in for repair. But you can also get laptops and desktops repaired from the Microsoft store, even if Dell, Acer, or any other company (except Apple) did.
That was my job in the Microsoft store: I removed viruses, fixed issues with Outlook and Word, and repaired broken laptops and desktops. This involved replacing old graphics cards, replacing hard drives and transferring data, and even replacing laptop keyboards and screens. We couldn’t repair all laptops (UltraBooks were nearly beyond repair), but in some cases where we didn’t have the tools on hand, we could send devices to a better-equipped facility that could accomplish more than the Store .
That’s important, because Microsoft’s study found that offering repair options significantly reduced emissions and waste. The study explicitly states that “enabling repair through device design, spare parts offerings, and repair location [has] significant potential for reducing carbon and waste impacts. The “location of the repair” part is essential because if you have to drive too far for the repairs, the greenhouse gases emitted by your vehicle compensate for the savings made thanks to the repairs. But how far is too far? Driving 189 miles to repair a Surface Pro 8 would negate the emissions saved, according to the study.
189 miles is pretty far, and if that’s your closest option, you’d probably prefer to mail the unit in for repair anyway. But if it was closer, then working with someone in person would reassure the healing process. Before closing almost all of its outlets, Microsoft had 116 stores, including more than 80 offering repair services. That’s 80 locations in four countries where people could travel less than 189 miles for repair. And now that’s no longer an option.
What Microsoft should do
Microsoft says it’s serious about the right to repair and the environmental conversation. If that’s true, he should put his money where his mouth is. It requires hard choices and expense, but all good things are. Sleek but irreparable laptops and tablets should be a thing of the past, and the company should continue the trend of building devices where repair is a viable option.
But it doesn’t do much good 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 retail stores, 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, education, and help. The sale of Surface tablets and laptops could continue, but as a side business and not as a profit motive. Imagine if the Microsoft Store was a place where you could learn how to use your new laptop, no matter who made it. You can go to the Microsoft Store for help when you encounter a problem. And when you drop your laptop or tablet, the Microsoft Store can be there to fix it.
Obviously, opening a new store in every city in the world isn’t sustainable either, but it’s an area where Microsoft could expand 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. Partnering with organizations like iFixit, Microsoft could enable Authorized Repair Points of the future – it could form the mom and pop stores you rely on to fix your broken HP laptop.
Additionally, the Microsoft-funded study mentioned that sending a device for repair or refurbishment did not help in the long run if it required air freight to China. 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 in bulk to a location to perform the work.
The Microsoft Store could have been the place to learn how to fix your device, buy the tools and parts you need to complete the repair, or take your device if the damage is beyond your ability. Alas, they are all closed, and this is not the case. For now, all we have is a promise that Microsoft will do something about it. Only time will tell if these are just words and a study.