An independent study Microsoft funded recently showed that improving repair processes could prevent greenhouse gases and avoid e-waste. But it’s easy to “study” an issue, harder to solve it. Unfortunately, Microsoft killed its best tool to tackle repairability—brick and mortar Microsoft Stores.
In many ways, this is a tale as old as Microsoft. The company has a bad habit of trying to create or mimic a good idea, getting nowhere with it, then giving up—only to have another company come along and do it better. Before the iPad, there was the 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 that’s just ideas it tried to create, let alone the ones it attempted to adapt from other companies, like Zune, Windows Phone, and the Microsoft Store. All “failures” by any reasonable measurement. But that last one, the Microsoft Store? It could have the key to Microsoft’s promise to support the Right to Repair drive.
Though one could argue it’s a begrudging agreement, Microsoft says that Right to Repair and environmental sustainability are important goals. Like most tech behemoths, it has long contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste, whether through its massive number of server farms or creating near impossible to repair gadgets. But “throw it out and buy new” isn’t sustainable or good for anyone.
Thankfully organizations like iFixit and As You Sow have led the charge on changing the way companies design electronics and fighting to make reparability accessible to anyone for any device. Those drives have led to changes at Microsoft and other companies—whereas the original Surface Laptop got a whopping 0 out of 10 repairability score, the third generation version improved its score to 5 out of 10. That’s still a long way to go to achieve true repairability, as found on the Framework laptop, but it’s a notable improvement nonetheless.
That pressure led to Microsoft funding a study that unsurprisingly determined that “all forms of repair offer significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and waste reduction benefits.” Simply put, repair is good for the environment. It’s good for the consumer, too, as it avoids spending money to replace something that might otherwise have worked for years to come. Think back to the backlash when Apple admitted to slowing iPhones down, leading to new iPhone purchases, when a battery replacement would have solved the problem.
The fact of the matter is, whether you want to fix your device to avoid buying new or help the environment, repairability should be a right accessible to all. Everyone should be able to either repair their devices or turn to a qualified person to do the job. And for too long, the design of our electronics and practices of the companies that created them has prevented that.
Microsoft says it takes reparability seriously, and lately, some of its actions suggest that’s true. The company recently teamed up with iFixit to make repair parts more accessible, and it released this study that openly suggests what the company should do going forward. But a study is nothing more than words if no one follows through with its suggestions. And unfortunately for Microsoft, it has already shut down its best tool to make reparability more accessible to everyone: the Microsoft Store.
You may not even realize it, but not long ago, Microsoft launched a series of retail outlets known as the Microsoft Store (not to be confused with the app store known as Microsoft Store). At first glance, it seemed like Microsoft merely copied the Apple Store format, right down to some of the look. It was, in fairness, another instance of Microsoft trying to repeat the success of another company. Microsoft even chose to open most of its stores across from or very near to existing Apple Stores, which didn’t help the “copy-pasted” appearance.
But look past the surface-level (pun intended) similarities of tables holding tablets and laptops, and you’d find some pretty stark differences between the Apple Store and Microsoft Store. I know, because I worked in a Microsoft Store for nearly thee years. My time there was educational beyond belief, and when Microsoft closed all of its stores, I mourned for the communities left behind.
After all, Microsoft Stores invested in communities, directing donations in the form of dollars and employee time to local non-profits, Boy Scout and Girl Scout clubs, and free training for anyone who wanted it. And Microsoft offered free services not found at the Apple Store, like 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 shutter all the stores. And it’s a shame because Microsoft Stores did something else no Apple Store does—repair devices the company didn’t even make.
Sure, you could take your damaged Surface tablet to a Microsoft Store for repair. Unfortunately, because Surface devices were so unrepairable (something true of the Surface Pro to this day), they were never repaired on site. Instead, Microsoft employees swapped the tablet for a new or refurbished unit, then sent off the damaged one for repair. But you could also get laptops and desktops repaired at the Microsoft store, even if Dell, Acer, or any other company (short of Apple) made it.
That was my job in the Microsoft store: I removed viruses, fixed issues with Outlook and Word, and repaired busted laptops and desktops. That entailed replacing old graphics cards, swapping out hard drives and transferring data, and even swapping out laptop keyboards and displays. We couldn’t fix every laptop (UltraBooks were nigh unrepairable), but in some cases where we didn’t have the tools on hand, we could send devices out to a better-equipped facility that could accomplish more than the Store.
That matters because Microsoft’s study found that offering repair options drastically reduced emissions and waste. The study states explicitly that “enabling repair through device design, spare part offerings, and localization of repair [has] significant potential to reduce carbon and waste impacts.” The “localization of repair” part is critical because if you have to drive too far for repairs, the greenhouse gasses your vehicle emits offset the savings gained by repairs. But how far is too far? According to the study, driving 189 miles to repair a Surface Pro 8 would negate the emissions saved.
189 miles is pretty far, and if that’s your closest option, you’d probably rather mail away the device for repair anyway. But if it were closer, then getting to work with someone in person would lend reassurance about the repair process. Before closing nearly all of its outlets, Microsoft had 116 stores, with over 80 offering repair services. That’s 80 locations across four countries where people could drive less than 189 miles for repair. And now that’s not an option anymore.
Microsoft says it’s serious about Right to Repair and Environmental Conversation. If that’s true, it should put its money where its mouth is. That requires some hard choices and spending money, but all good things do. Sleek yet unrepairable laptops and tablets need to be a thing of the past, and the company should continue the trend of building devices where repair is a viable option.
But that doesn’t do a lot of good if there’s no easy way to get those 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 into expensive Mall retail locations, 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, teaching, and help. Selling Surface tablets and laptops could continue, but as a side business and not the goal for profitability. Imagine if the Microsoft Store was a place you could go to learn how to use your new laptop, no matter who made it. You could go to the Microsoft Store for help when you run into an issue. And when you drop your laptop or tablet, the Microsoft Store could be there to fix it.
Obviously, opening a new Store in every city in the world is unsustainable too, but that’s an area where Microsoft could extend its old mission. The Microsoft Store could be a place to learn how to repair devices. Whether as a professional or as a tech enthusiast. Partnering with organizations like iFixit, Microsoft could enable authorized repair outlets of the future—it could train the mom and pop stores you rely on to fix your broken HP laptop.
Additionally, the study Microsoft funded mentioned that mailing a device away for a repair or refurbishment didn’t 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 to drive. The Microsoft Store could perform those repairs or bulk ship to a location that to do the work.
The Microsoft Store could have been the place to learn to repair your device, buy the tools and parts you need to perform the repair, or take your device if the damage is beyond your capabilities. Alas, they’re all closed, and that’s not the case. For now, all we have is a promise that Microsoft will do something. Only time will tell if those are just words and a study.