Chris Harjadi is a sophomore student studying cognitive science. The focus of his studies includes how computer science and psychology connect via virtual reality/”metaverse” applications, as well as learning about the philosophy and linguistics of computer systems. In the article below, Chris shares his thoughts on the relationship between making computers intuitive to use, thinness and repairability. Feel free to reach out to Chris via email.
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TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read): More and more nontechnical users are using laptops; they would prefer sending them to a repair shop over DIY repair, and the market share of DIYers in both corporate and consumer buyers is dwindling.
So far, I would say that IT businesses have shifted mostly from individuals who repaired laptops on an individual basis (ex, laptop repair much like the “do it yourself” ethos of PC builders) to being outsourced to bigger repair shops (ex, Staples, Office Depot, Insight, etc) in the corporate world, leading for businesses not to really care about the repairability of the machines they are manufacturing. After all, a broken laptop, in an employee’s eyes, is broken and will often be repaired by the “tech guy.”
Since computer manufacturers want to give the consumer what they want, a computer that is easy to repair is not often a priority. If their customers don’t care about the repairability of the device, then it means the manufacturer doesn’t normally either. This gives laptop manufacturers a stronger incentive to “lock up” their computers and make them less repairable because it isn’t as important as it used to be. On the design side, larger manufacturers over the years including Lenovo, Apple, HP, Dell and more, want to outdo each other in providing what the consumer wants. This often means thinner and lighter devices (what is valued) at the cost of repairability (not as valued).
I think it could be due to manufacturers targeting non-technical users by giving them a seamless and intuitive user interface/hardware interface. This marketing has been pushed rather strongly by Apple compared to the Microsoft/Windows laptop market. Over the years Apple made several ads showing the ease with which a computer could be used and Microsoft felt the pressure to create a similar experience for its users. This means the overall skill ceiling to use a computer becomes lower and accessibility is greater. These are both good things, but they come with a price.
Since the number of non-technical users has increased over the years, the DIY ethos has less and less of a market share, leading to manufacturers to cut costs, first soldering chips to the motherboard, then soldering the RAM later on. Even mainline ThinkPads, like the ThinkPad T490 and later, only have one user-replaceable RAM slot. Interestingly enough, this feature now appears on the L series, which is geared towards smaller business consumers that might need to make their machines work for longer periods of time in between upgrades, making this feature more desirable at this price point. This leads to a cycle where non-technical employees and consumers enjoy slimmer and slimmer laptops, while sacrificing tech-friendly features like maintenance hatches and easy to replace RAM. David Hill said it well in an interview segment featured on Laptop Retrospective:
“It’s not as utilitarian as it once was but some of the need for some of that stuff is not so great. It used to be really, really important to swap out batteries, the hardfile [hard drive] and all this stuff. It’s a slightly different world now and to make a computer like that would make it thicker, more expensive, more complicated, layers upon layers upon layers of materials. I think that kind of thing, that time has somewhat passed. There may be a market for some of that but it’s a smaller market.”
Businesses buy these laptops because they are in demand and the computer technicians can fix them quickly by swapping larger components wasting less time on diagnosis. When they run out of warranty, the hard-to-repair laptops flood the refurbished market every 2-3 years. Many computer enthusiasts prefer to buy used hardware because they have the skill and knowledge to have them run good as new. Interestingly, HP and Dell have kept many of these features in their business-class laptops, yet they have also had to put internal batteries in laptops.
On the ground, I see that most tech enthusiasts and people who like to tinker tend to talk about the right to repair (which is an important movement), while other non-technical users will get outside help. In the end, it mainly impacts people who buy refurbished units or old laptops on eBay or other retailers, while businesses and employees tend to be generally happy with using their work laptops. Though the Framework laptop has helped revive the right to repair discussion for laptops, its features are only appreciated by technology enthusiasts. In short, repairable features of laptops are only appreciated by tech enthusiasts, which are making up a smaller and smaller share of the laptop market.
Thanks again to Chris for putting this together. If you’d like to read more about this subject, you might be interested in the articles below.