Computer programmer Kyle Wiens is the creator of the iFixit website, ‘the free repair guide for everything, written by everyone’ (ifixit.com). To date, the site claims to have helped more than 15 million people repair every conceivable piece of machinery or equipment.
Wiens recalls the time he helped a farmer friend repair a tractor. The tractor was a hi-tech model and the farmer’s spanners, wrenches and screwdrivers were hopelessly inadequate to the task, as was his expertise as a mechanic. But Wiens understood computers and identified the problem: a hydraulic sensor was on the blink, and each time it malfunctioned the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It would take at least two days for the manufacturer’s technician to order and fit a new sensor.
”Dave [the farmer] asked me if there was some way to bypass the bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up,” he recalls. But that meant fiddling around with the tractor’s proprietary software, specifically the engine control unit.
“An hour later, I hopped out of the cab. Defeated. I was unable to breach the wall of proprietary defences that protected the tECU like a fortress. Dave is a DIY kind of guy, who would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing and troubleshoot error codes.
“Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself, because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.”
Who’s really the owner?
Wiens stresses that buyers no longer fully own the equipment or devices they purchase. Rather, manufacturers do, because modifying modern devices requires access to service manuals and diagnostic tools.
“Once we buy an object, any object, we should own it,” he says. “We should be able to lift the hood, unlock it, modify it, repair it without asking for permission from the manufacturer.”
He has a point. On the other hand, a little ‘fiddling’ can have serious consequences (it’s likely to void your warranty, for a start). All the same, iFixit may enable you to do ‘running repairs’ until you can call in the experts.