Broke your Xbox? Right to repair just took a big step forward at Microsoft

Microsoft has agreed to new parts and documentation for its hardware outside its authorized repair network by the end of 2022.

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Microsoft has acquiesced to an activist shareholder request for the company to make its Surface and Xbox hardware easier to repair.

As You Sow, an investor advocacy group, says it filed a shareholder resolution with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) aimed at Microsoft's hardware. 

Microsoft is primarily a software company, but it does have a $1 billion Surface business and makes the Xbox gaming console – though it has nothing in hardware on the scale of Apple, Samsung, Dell, HP or Lenovo.

SEE: Microsoft's Windows 11: How to get it now (or later)

Microsoft is an interesting target. The company already has an eye on repairability, having shown off the Surface Laptop 3 with a keyboard cover that can be readily removed by repairers to access the motherboard. Right-to-repair activist iFixit noted that this Surface device "swerved confidently into a better, more repairable direction."

But its influence on hardware is mostly through Windows OEMs like Dell, Lenovo, and HP as well as the Azure cloud. 

Change is also slow in hardware production lines. As You Sow announced this week that in June it submitted a demand to the SEC that Microsoft "explore the environmental and social benefits of making its devices easier to repair through measures such as the public provision of tools, parts and repair instructions."  

iFixit, which gives hardware makers a score of zero to 10 based on repairability, has been critical of how Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft design their products, claiming the companies prevent consumers and repairers from accessing components and tools to repair hardware, such as phones, desktops, earphones and smartwatches. 

iFixit co-founder and CEO Kyle Wiens in July slammed Apple and Microsoft at an Australian government hearing into the repair issue. 

"The Surface laptop got a zero. It had a glued-in battery … we had to actually cut our way into the product and destroyed it in the process of trying to get inside," Wiens told Australian officials. 

As You Sow says its SEC shareholder resolution targeted Microsoft because its products are creating 'premature landfill'. 

"Microsoft positions itself as a leader on climate and the environment, yet facilitates premature landfilling of its devices by restricting consumer access to device reparability," Kelly McBee, As You Sow's waste program coordinator, said in a press release

"To take genuine action on sustainability and ease pressure on extraction of limited resources including precious metals, the company must extend the useful life of its devices by facilitating widespread access to repair."

As You Sow points to the recent US federal proposal for a Fair Repair Act that would require tech firms to provide consumers and repairers with diagnostics information to repair hardware. 

As You Sow points out the glaring contradiction between tech giants' stance on carbon emissions and their consumer policies. Amazon, Microsoft and Google have made bold commitments to cut carbon emissions by 2030 while rolling out new cloud, networking and consumer hardware products.     

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"For Microsoft to authentically pursue its commitment to be carbon negative by 2030, it must make it easier for consumers to repair their device than to buy a new one," said McBee.

SEE: Windows 11 upgrade: Five questions to ask first

McBee said Microsoft lawyers were initially "antagonistic" to repair issues, but changed their tune after the shareholder resolution in June. 

"Microsoft came back with different legal counsel and representatives on the line and said, 'We are really changing our tune on this issue, we think this study is a great idea, let's work together to make this change,'" McBee told Grist. "Which is night and day." 

Microsoft is now obliged to publish a summary of its findings by the beginning of May 2022, according to Grist. It also agreed to make new parts and documentation available beyond its authorized repair network by the end of 2022.

Microsoft confirmed it was responding to issues raised by As You Sow investors.

"We believe customers are entitled to repair options that are safe and reliable," Microsoft said in a statement. "We currently provide customers with repair services that ensure the high quality of repairs, safeguard customers' privacy and security, and protect customers from injury.

"As You Sow asked us to investigate the connections between our sustainability commitments and device repairability. It was a productive discussion, and we have agreed to undertake that important study, the results of which will be used to guide our product design and plans for expanding device repair options for our customers."