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Smartphone with a cracked screen

IEEE wants mobile devices to be more repairable

In the early days of computers, if systems engineers wanted to fix something, that’s exactly what they did. They looked through the manual of operating specifications, broke out the soldering iron and fixed a connection on a circuit board or other component — although they probably didn’t have to break it out, as it was probably still on the workbench from the last time.

With mobile devices, the commonly accepted way to “fix” them is to replace them. The market research firm IDC has predicted that vendors will ship more than 1.7 billion mobile phones in 2013, and that number will only grow. In fact, the number of mobile phones is expected to exceed the number of people in the world by next year.

Considering the disposal rate of old phones, the environmental impact is staggering, especially considering that used phones are not always recycled or donated.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers wants to address this issue, effectively by adding “repair” to the environmental mantra, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

According to Kyle Wiens, IEEE member and CEO of iFixit, developers could make a huge difference with some basic changes. “Regardless of size, there are numerous design features that manufacturers can use to improve the repairability of their products,” Wiens said. “Simple things like utilizing [accessible] cases, using screws rather than adhesives, and providing easy access to parts that are most likely to break, like screens, greatly improve the repairability of cell phones and significantly extend their life.” He urged designers to build in sustainable features, “not only to make them last longer but to help promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.”

By taking steps to make mobile devices more repairable, manufacturers could not only have a positive impact on the environment -- but also on their corporate images. But will they do it? My guess is probably not, since the upgrade cycle of mobile devices seems to be a big part of profits.

On the other hand, agency admins already worried about securely managing a growing number of mobile devices, might find “disposable” phones a blessing. Devices that are easily taken apart and put back together with a screw driver might make them easy for a hacker to modify, creating an entirely new front of cybersecurity worries. So manufacturers of mobile devices will have to keep this in mind when creating any user-serviceable areas. It shouldn't prevent the IEEE's dream from taking form entirely, but it will likely slow the pace of improvements.

And the idea of making phones that last longer is still a good one. The Federal Communications Commission recently proposed that users should be able to switch carriers without getting a new phone. That would save people money, but it would also help the environment, since it would prevent (or at least delay) a lot of phones from being thrown out.

Posted by Greg Crowe on Apr 25, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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