During its October Surface event on Thursday, Microsoft revealed something unexpected (besides the Surface Duo phone): A stylish, thin, repairable laptop.
The Surface Laptop 3 wowed the audience as Panos Panay, Microsoft’s product chief, showed it off on stage. People who care about the ability to fix your own gadgets soon began praising the company’s efforts to make a repairable Surface machine. Unfortunately, Microsoft is still making its Surface Laptop 3 difficult for you — or even technicians not authorised by the company — to repair.
“We continue to focus on the purity of this design, which was critical. But we also — for our commercial customers — we wanted to add the elements of serviceability, repairability, things that matter for customers,” he said. “Most of the time when you make a product that is serviceable, there’s lines, there’s extra weight, there’s extra thickness, you’ll see what I call trap doors. But on this product, we’ve done none of that.”
Lifting the keyboard away from the body of the computer, Panay exposed a module-like design for seemingly easy repairability — a reveal that won a round of applause from the audience in the room where the event was held in New York. Panay went on to comment that there are “some tools to make that happen,” as is to be expected, but he did not elaborate on whether those tools would be readily available or to whom. Gizmodo has learned Microsoft will not give access to those tools and resources to users and will instead limit their distribution to authorised repair technicians.
Indeed, after showing off the new Surface’s improvements for repairability, Panay cautioned people against attempting to rip the product apart themselves. Later it was made clear to Gizmodo reporters at the event that taking the computer apart yourself would void the warranty.
Repair advocates believe that users should have the right to repair their own devices — you know, products that they own. But if you can’t make your own informed decision about who does the repair on your product — be it your tech-savvy neighbour, an independent repair shop, or yourself — because manufactures make it damn near impossible, there’s an argument to be made that you do not actually maintain control over that device for which you paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
It’s worth noting here Microsoft’s anti-right-to-repair track record. As one example, in an interview with iFixit earlier this year, Washington State Representative Jeff Morris accused Microsoft of being instrumental in squashing “right-to-repair” legislation in his state.
Microsoft is also a member of the U.S. Entertainment Software Association, a trade organisation that opposes right-to-repair legislation. Further, last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a warning to Microsoft (in addition to other major manufacturers) over warranty language seemingly intended to dissuade users from seeking repairs by parties other than Microsoft.
While Microsoft does have a trade-in and recycling program for products, batteries, packaging, it’s still hard to square lauding a company that’s so aggressively pushed back against initiatives that would make it easier for people to repair their stuff on their own terms.
The key to understanding exactly who this repairability benefits may be right there in Panay’s presentation language: commercial customers. If that’s the case, it seems unlikely that the product would directly benefit the everyday consumer. Pretty as that module-like design appeared, it’s entirely possible that the company will withhold guides, tools, parts and other necessary repair components from individual users. Instead, this improved repairability will more likely position Microsoft to better compete with rivals like Lenovo, Dell and HP in the commercial space.
Still, it’s hard to deny Microsoft of the incredible feat here of maintaining the design of the Surface while at the same time focusing on greater repairability (even if it’s limited by who can do those repairs). It’s certainly an improvement over the first-generation Surface laptop, which iFixit dubbed a “glue-filled monstrosity” and awarded a devastating zero out of 10 on its repairability scale in its 2017 teardown.
Kyle Wiens, editor-in-chief of iFixit, told Gizmodo by phone on Thursday that there was “no possible way that [Panay] could have done on stage what he did with that laptop with any other Surface product.” The shift away from the Surface’s anti-repair design was also commended by Nathan Proctor, who leads the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Right to Repair campaign — although he noted that was not an especially high bar to clear.
Proctor told Gizmodo by phone that he’s “very pleased with what the little that I know so far,” commending the engineering improvements that will cut down repair times on the previously repair-unfriendly Surface, and ones that have to Microsoft’s benefit likely been in the works for some time. It can take a long time to carefully overhaul the entire design of a premier product, after all. But he noted there’s much to be revealed about the device and its repairability that wasn’t immediately clear in the absence of a teardown.
“It seems obvious that it’s definitely moving in the right direction,” Proctor said. “I think the questions that have to be answered are: How widely distributed will the repair tools and information be? And what are the other issues with the reparability? But I think Microsoft — if they put engineering time into making it more fixable — they deserve credit for that. That’s a good thing to do, and it speaks well of the ability of the right to repair campaign to influence manufacturer behaviour.”