Regulatory Policy

A Computer-Repair Expert Takes on Big Tech

(Getty Images)
Louis Rossmann on why he believes in the Right to Repair

Rossmann Group’s Louis Rossmann has made a name for himself calling out tech companies’ seemingly anti-consumer practices while producing increasingly popular DIY-computer-repair instructional videos from his New York City small business. National Review’s Luther Abel spoke with Rossmann recently to better understand what the “Right to Repair” is and isn’t, to discuss Right to Repair regulatory efforts, and to consider whether conservative- and libertarian-leaning people should back or resist his activism.

Luther Abel: What does Right to Repair mean? How does your description of Right to Repair differ from that of its detractors?

Louis Rossmann: Well, there are a few points that detractors will make, which is that Right to Repair is me saying, “I want you [the manufacturer] to design the device very specifically to be repairable, regardless of technological progress. I want phones to weigh two pounds. I want everything to be modular, everything to be 100 percent easy for me, even if it means that technology doesn’t get to move forward.” And that couldn’t be further from the truth. What I’m asking for is that the intentional roadblocks put in our way that do not help the customer, that do not make the product better, that do not improve anybody’s life, would be taken away when they’re not supposed to be there. Right to Repair for me is not so much a legislative movement as it is a general cultural movement among people who want to have the ability to own their property again. . . . There’s been a big push over the past ten to 15 years for you to rent software, for you to rent hardware. . . . The concept of ownership is something that’s being taken away more and more each year. So Right to Repair is just a push back to where we own the stuff that we have again.

LA: Has the legislation you’re pushing for changed in the last few years with technological advances or have the main tenets remained the same?

LR: The main tenets have remained the same and there has been virtually no progress over the past five to six years.

LA: You touched on this already, but I’ll ask it very deliberately: Does Right to Repair mean that every electronic item must be repairable, rather than replaceable. For instance, I had an old ASUS laptop I bought for 200 bucks. Everything was soldered in, meaning upgrading was impossible. Now it’s completely useless to me, but I paid $200. So what’s the big deal?

LR: Right to Repair is not the concept that everything needs to be specifically designed in a manner where it’s easier for me [to fix]. So, for instance, if you’re going to solder the drive to the board, I’m not saying, “Don’t do that.” Feel free to make those decisions as a company, to make your products slimmer in any way that you see fit. But if you’re going to say, “We’re going to specifically pair this SSD to this computer, so that even if you’re able to locate the chips, they’re not going to work when you put them in,” that’s the area where Right to Repair would come in and say, ”Let’s do less of that.” So if you want to design them in a manner where you solder the charge chip in, rather than, I don’t know, having it in a socket, let’s say — this is a really silly example cause we’re going back like 30 or 40 years — if you’re going to solder the chip instead of socket it in, I don’t mind that. You do you. But, if you’re going to make it so that nobody can get the chip, that’s where Right to Repair would come in and say that that’s what we’re against.

So one example of what Right to Repair is not: The European Union, I believe, was looking to mandate that Apple use USB-C instead of Lightning, because USB-C is a standard and Lightning is not a standard. I don’t want people to think that has anything to do with Right to Repair because it doesn’t; that’s completely separate. I’m not looking to tell Apple, “You need to use this type of charge port. I want you to use micro USB. I want you to use USB-C. I want you to use this.” No, what we’re saying is, regardless of what you use to charge your phone — you could use a banana to charge it — just give us access to be able to purchase that charge port so that if the charge port in the phone breaks, we can fix it for customers rather than tell them, “Your phone is now a brick.” So I think that is a good example of what Right to Repair is not: We’re not looking to say, “You need to use this port. You need to do this.” Just don’t intentionally lock people out of the ability to fix it once you’ve chosen how to design it.

LA: In a market with competition, why have the government intervene? Can’t you just let market forces lead the way on this?

LR: I kind of lean libertarian so I’m very, I’m very sensitive to that argument. So, when it comes to competition, there’s a lot of competition in the marketplace right now, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with repair. So, let’s say I want a more durable computer than a Macbook. I can buy a ThinkPad T Series where you can drop it, spill liquid [on it], and it’ll still work. If I want a cheaper machine, as you said, I could buy a cheap Acer or Asus. If I want a more powerful machine, [I] could buy a Dell XPS Series and [I’d be] getting something that’s more powerful for [my] money. There’s competition in many ways. But when it comes to repair, there is no competition at all that I can see between the different companies and how they handle this.

So let’s say you bring me a device that has no light on the screen after you spill something [on it] or after you drop it. And I want to find a schematic to that device so that I can fix it. Dell is not going to help me. Lenovo is not going to help me. HP Compaq, Acer, ASUS, Toshiba — I could go down the entire list of hardware manufacturers . . . Zero of them are going to give me any help.  None of them have any kind of program for that. Even if I were willing to spend $1,000 or $6,000 or $10,000 a year, like car shops do for access to software, diagnostic tools — none of that stuff exists [for third-party electronic repairers]. So while there’s competition in the business in every other area, there is no competition when it comes to repair.

If you, as a consumer, want to buy a device where it’s easy for you to choose who fixes it, that doesn’t exist. That pretty much doesn’t exist in this industry. And the other thing is . . . that this is not something where it’s even like, “Well just don’t buy Apple” or “Just don’t buy a laptop,” because this is something that’s occurring with many different companies in many different fields. With tractors, it’s happening with a John Deere and many of the other major companies. I interviewed a bunch of people who I was very surprised had the same problems as me two and a half years ago: In Albany with endoscopes, they were having this problem with a lot of the endoscope industry. There was an article in the New York Times, I think from someone named Elle Ekman, [detailing how] the Marine Corps [was] having issues where a lot of their different vendors were not giving them what they needed to repair stuff. So even if you wanted to tune out consumer electronics and say, “I’m not buying a laptop or a cell phone,” it’s still an issue that’s there because it’s pervasive: not just to every company within my industry, but it’s getting to be every company in every industry.

And also there’s one point that didn’t get discussed when you asked about the competition in the marketplace and government intervention in it. So when it comes to government intervention, there’s an idea within the conservative or libertarian community, which I often agree with, which is that government is going to screw things up and get in the way. So let’s say I agree with this principle 100 percent that government gets in the way, they screw things up, and we want less government. One of the things is that the government, at the very least in our current industry, has their tentacles all over it, but it’s just for the benefit of one party.

So let’s say we’re talking about schematics. A lot of the people who have gotten me schematics — whose names I’m obviously not going to give away — are people [who] not only work for these companies, but are actual designers at these companies. And they’ll come across a YouTube video or Reddit post that I got featured in that went viral and they’ll say, “I was part designer of this circuit you talked about,” and I’ll wind up getting a schematic or a document from them. When that person shares that document with me, they have — according to current intellectual-property and copyright law, they’ve committed a crime. It’s not just their fear of getting fired; they can actually now be prosecuted. This is an area where government already has their tentacles in it, where someone who works at the company can say, “Oh yeah, you want to know what the value of this fuse is. This is the value of that fuse.” That’s now protected information.

Alright, take parts. So I have a friend in Florida who is speaking with Customs and Border Patrol, and he was speaking with them about importing parts from China. He told me that you could have someone in China pretty much take an iPhone, take all the parts out of it that they purchased in China legally, send those parts to the United States, and they [the parts] would wind up being confiscated because they have Apple logos on [them]. And they would be confiscated as counterfeit for the Apple logos, regardless of whether it was actually a good counterfeit or simply parts out of a used phone, because of the logo. So this is the government getting in the way of me being able to do my job. I should have the right to import used parts from another country and use [them] to fix a customer’s device. Especially if that customer’s device is no longer supported by the manufacturer. So government is already getting in the way.

A third [example] would be with chips. So with the newest MacBook, there’s one particular charging chip that I cannot get anywhere. I used to be able to purchase this from other vendors. I used to, a long time ago, be able to go to Mouser, Digi-Key, Newark, and buy them. Now what I need to do, because [Apple] told Intersil, “Don’t sell to anybody but us,” is I have to buy a $120 wireless-charging, extended-battery case thing for the iPhone XR, rip that chip off of it, and then put it into the Macbook. Now, I spoke with a person who was referred to me about fabricating one of these chips or something similar to it that will work, because it’s a very basic chip. It’s just a buck converter; it takes 20 volts and turns it into twelve. This isn’t rocket science. . . . And if they were to make me that chip, they would get in trouble, because it could be seen that they’re taking trade secrets from Apple.  This could be infringement of [Apple’s] intellectual property. And the moment many of these fabrication plants learn that this was for an Apple product, they said, “Nope, not touching that one. We don’t want the legal liability.” So the government really does have their tentacles all over repair, keeping me from importing parts [and keeping] people from telling me where things go in the device. I would honestly be okay putting down the Right to Repair mantle — not showing up at hearings, not advocating for a legal Right to Repair at all — if we could do a universal disarmament.

There are people [who] have said that the laws, at least in a libertarian sense, when you create a law, that’s the government pointing a gun at someone. I would be okay saying, “Let’s not have a gun in the room.” But for me to not advocate for Right to Repair while they’re saying, “If you import parts, we’re going to take them. If someone gives you a schematic about the product, we’re going to put them in prison” — that’s not really universal disarmament. I would be okay with not having a Right to Repair if we could come up with a compromise where they [the government] weren’t so involved in the repair industry on behalf of the manufacturers.

LA: You only have so much energy, so much time, and so much money. Why this legislation? Could there not be a way to impress on a company or companies that the access to these parts and schematics is a desirable thing and they can make money doing it?

LR: I think I go that route in a different, more roundabout way. What I want people to get out of what they watch on this [YouTube] channel is that repairing stuff can be fun. It’s not something that’s only reserved for the geniuses. If someone like me, [who] barely graduated high school and flunked out of college because he couldn’t pass freshman chemistry, is able to do what I do, maybe you can do it too. I want people to watch this and actually get into the fields of repair or engineering or electronics because they find investigative, detective repair work fun. Once they graduate, once they get internships at these companies, once they have engineering positions at these companies, if someone says, “By the way, when you’re on the phone with Intersil make sure they don’t sell parts to Mouser or a Digi-key,” I want them to say, “No, I’m not doing that. If you do that, I’m leaving.”

I did a video on this about two years ago: Right to Repair is like 99 percent inspiration, 1 percent legislation. I actually put very little, if any, of my time on the legislative part of this. Last year, I think I spent three days traveling for Right to Repair. In 2018, I think I spent five days, maybe not even . . . traveling for Right to Repair. [In] 2017 I spent seven days total. This year was a record. I think I wound up just with bouncing back and forth I think it was ten or 15 days. But 99 percent of my time is really spent just trying to run a company that makes repair look like a good thing to do and also to get people to find this exciting. The way I get people to find that exciting is, “Hey, were you told this is going to cost $1,200? Here’s how you can do it yourself.” Or, “Did you just get laid off from your job because the economy sucks? Here is something that you can do that has a ridiculously low barrier to entry that will allow you to make $200 to $400 inside of ten to 20 minutes.” I want to get people excited about this so that once they finally get to a point where they work at these businesses, it is so disgusting and unpalatable to them that they [manufacturers] take the anti-repair actions that they do, that those companies are not able to [take those actions] anymore. And also, I want consumers to actually realize what is going on so that they ask this of these companies, because most of my customers that come to me have no idea that things are the way they were up until maybe just a couple of years ago.

If I said, “I can’t figure out your sensor issue.” “Why not?” “Because the diagnostic software to figure out your sensor issue was taken away from this machine.” So a few years ago you could just hold down the D button and it would tell you which sensor failed. Now, the D button gives you [an] error code that on Apple’s website it says go to a Genius Bar. They [consumers] don’t actually know what’s happening. So, I want to raise awareness so that people actually know to ask for it.

LA: You have videos detailing times when people go into the Apple store and they’re quoted $1,200 to fix the wrong thing with a suggestion from the employees to just upgrade instead of repairing. I wonder how much of that is corporate pressure and how much of it is that the technician is just an idiot and/or doesn’t really know what they’re doing. Granted, that would lend itself to saying Apple doesn’t train their people very well if they can’t give a correct quote and issue. But how much do you think is just human error and how much of it is corporate policy?

LR: It is human error. However, once the human error is allowed to continue, to occur without oversight, then it becomes a corporate issue. So, for instance, if someone were writing material for National Review that was fundamentally factually inaccurate and said that, you know, the Civil War happened in the United States in 1600 or whatever, and this happened once . . . [it would be] just that individual being an idiot. But then if articles are written like that for five or ten years, then the question would become: Why? Who was the editor? How is it that after this happened ten times, they didn’t come up with some different way to review drafts [so] that this didn’t happen [again]? So with that individual example, the first problem is that they are not given any training. They’re given training that is worse than what I give a first-week receptionist with regard to how to figure out where you should look for issues, what you should diagnose.

I don’t think that [Apple] cares to do that, but now once enough of these gaffes have occurred, then you should think, okay, here’s a couple of ways that we could slightly retool our system so that we’re still on the safe side of making money and we’re still on the safe side of not giving customers a half-fix, but also we don’t look like complete idiots. And the fact that even as late as 2018, that they [were] still doing this, that to me is a corporate issue at that point. And it’s one that could be addressed. You know what I mean?

It would be a very interesting undertaking to try to come up with a framework that would allow the people that work at the Apple store, with their education level, to be able to figure all of these things out. Because I’ve looked at Genius Bar salaries. And at first I felt, I remember in the beginning thinking, “Okay, you know, people will say, ‘You can’t just come up with a system that allows people who are not really educated, who make this amount of money, to do the job.’” And then I see that there are areas where they’re making like 25, 30 bucks an hour. I could teach someone who’s worth 25 to 30 bucks an hour how to diagnose these flaws, so when this model comes in with this problem and you see this, this is what you look for. This is what you tell the customer. I’ve already done that with a spreadsheet, as one person with this tiny twelve-, 14-person company. So I really don’t see how a company that has $100 billion, $200 billion in cash reserves with tens of thousands of employees can’t do the very same thing. They don’t care to. That’s the only explanation, once you’ve ignored it for such a long time.

LA: Critics of Right to Repair argue that phones are dangerous to work on yourself and that they operate things now like Waymo, for example, where your phone can now semi-autonomously drive your vehicle. They say allowing people who aren’t trained to fix these sorts of things could result in fatalities that could have been prevented if they’d stayed with the manufacturer-recommended repair option.

LR: Well, a phone is getting to a point where it’s able to drive a vehicle. However, the vehicle is also able to drive the vehicle, and you’re able to work on your own vehicle. There’s this one AutoZone ad, it was something called “I Did It,” was the name of the advertisement that came out a year or two ago. At one point, you see a teenage girl who clearly has probably never worked on a car before with her mom, and they’re both trying to figure out how to fix the car, and then they fixed the car and then it works. So if people are able to fix a 3000- to 6,000-pound device without taking a class, without having experience, and they’re legally allowed to do that, then why can’t you fix a cell phone? I mean, we don’t apply that standard to many other industries where there is far more at stake if you fix the product [yourself].

LA: What are your business’s prospects going forward if more and more repair cannot be done outside of these corporations and their approved, licensed technicians?

LR: Good and bad. That’s the thing. The more difficult it becomes, the fewer people there will be in the industry, therefore the more demand there will be for the people who figure out how to go around these things. So for instance, with the T2 chip, if your machine dies you need to fix the board to get the data. So what they did right there is they immediately removed everybody whose idea of data recovery is running software or unplugging the drive and plugging it into a new machine. You now need to know how to do BGA rework if you want to get data off of a machine with a dead CPU, and that is a high-value service. That service requires experience, it requires equipment and a lot of stuff that I’ve built up over the years.

So in that way, it actually makes our business more competitive, because other businesses won’t be able to offer that as a service and the consumer won’t be able to do it themselves, which is screwed up. I don’t think that machines should necessarily be designed that way, but, you know, they bought it. Whereas there are other areas, let’s say with certain chip sets and screens, where if I’m not able to find a source to it, I won’t be able to offer that as a service anymore, which means no income from doing that. So it really could go one of [two] ways. We [could] wind up doing very well because repair becomes a smaller and smaller cottage industry of a small number of players [who] have access to parts, schematics, [and] diagrams and learn how to get around this stuff. That [model] has a much higher barrier to entry, which means less competition and more business. Or it could go completely downhill entirely to where I’m not able to get the parts that I need to do my job, so I can’t do my job. And then, you know, no more business.

LA: What will make people finally leave New York? As a business owner there, you say there’s a point [past which] you would leave, but when is that? Is it a firm line? Or is it: You’ll know it when you see it?

LR: Well, a lot of people ask, why are you in New York? And one of the obvious reasons is . . . this is a very densely populated area with lots of people and industries that make lots of money. So there is going to be a lot of business here. Now, even though it costs a lot of money to do business in New York City, my rent may be $5,000 more here, but if the income is $30,000 or $60,000 more, then who really cares about that? People are going to leave once that business goes away.

So for instance, I’m right next to the Fashion Institute of Technology. If they’re here and they’re customers, well, that’s valuable. If FIT is closed for the rest of the year because of [the coronavirus], why am I paying $12,000 [a month in rent] again? You know, if people start working from home, then that’s going to cut down on my customer base. So once the customer base here has gone down, but the rent still goes up every year, at that point, I’m going to look at my numbers and say, “What the hell am I doing here? I could run this business from somewhere else.” So the rent here only makes sense . . . if you’re able to make money here. And what I like about New York is that if you have a good idea and you’re good at implementing it and you’re willing to work twelve hours a day, you can make money.

My friend lives in Jacksonville, Fla., and he loves it for the quality of life. He really does. And he’s probably better in many ways at this industry than I am. But if he wanted to start a business there, there’s no way for him to just start working twelve hours a day, because there’s not twelve hours a day worth of work for him to do in Jacksonville in this field. He would have one customer every two days come to him. So the thing I like about New York is that if you’re willing to put the work in and you have an idea, you can go from being broke, just like me, and if you . . . have a little bit of luck, you can make something of yourself. Once that’s no longer true, then people will leave.

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