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An independent study funded by Microsoft shows that improving repair processes could prevent greenhouse gases and prevent e-waste. But it is easy to “study” a problem, more difficult to solve it. Unfortunately, Microsoft removed its best tool for addressing repairability: Microsoft’s physical stores.

In many ways, this is a story as old as Microsoft. The company has a bad habit of trying to create or imitate a good idea, get nowhere and then give up, only for another company to come along and do better. Before the iPad, there was the Microsoft Surface (the giant touch screen on the coffee table). Before the iPhone, there was Windows Mobile. Before the Apple Watch, there was Microsoft Spot. Before Google Earth, there was Terraserver.

And those are just ideas it tried to create, not to mention the ones it tried to adapt from other companies, like the Zune, Windows Phone, and the Microsoft Store. All “faults” by any reasonable measure. But that last one, the Microsoft Store? You could hold the key to Microsoft’s promise to support the Right to Repair drive.

Microsoft says the right to repair is important

iFixit Surface Display Debonding Tool, which was designed by Microsoft.
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Although it could be argued that this is a grudging agreement, Microsoft says that the right to repair and environmental sustainability are important goals. Like most tech giants, it has long contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste, either through its plethora of server farms or by creating nearly impossible-to-repair devices. But “throw it away and buy a new one” is not sustainable or good for anyone.

Fortunately, organizations like iFixit and As You Sow have been leading the charge in the way companies design electronics and are fighting to make repair accessible to anyone, on any device. Those drives have led to changes at Microsoft and other companies—while the original Surface Laptop earned an amazing repairability score of 0 out of 10, the third-gen version improved its score to 5 out of 10. There’s still a long way to go. to achieve true repairability, as found on the Framework laptop, but it’s a marked improvement nonetheless.

That pressure led Microsoft to fund a study that unsurprisingly found 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 also good for the consumer, avoiding spending money to replace something that might otherwise have worked for years to come. Think of the backlash when Apple admitted slowing down iPhones, leading to new iPhone purchases, when a battery replacement would have solved the problem.

The fact is, whether you want to get your device repaired to avoid buying a new one or help the environment, repair should be an accessible right for everyone. Everyone should be able to get their devices repaired or have a qualified person do the work. And for too long, the design of our electronic products and the practices of the companies that created them have prevented that.

Microsoft says it’s serious about repairability, and lately some of its actions suggest that’s true. The company recently partnered with iFixit to make repair parts more accessible and published this study that openly suggests what the company should do in the future. But a study is just words if no one follows its suggestions. And unfortunately for Microsoft, it has already shut down its best tool to make repair more accessible to everyone: the Microsoft Store.

Microsoft Store was the solution

A Microsoft Store full of people looking at devices
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You may not even realize it, but not long ago, Microsoft launched a series of outlets known as the Microsoft Store (not to be confused with the app store known as the Microsoft Store). At first glance, it seemed that Microsoft had simply copied the format of the Apple Store, down to the last detail. It was, to be fair, another instance of Microsoft trying to replicate the success of another company. Microsoft even opted to open most of its stores across from or very close to existing Apple Stores, which didn’t help the “copy and paste” look.

But look beyond the surface-level (pun intended) similarities of tables holding tablets and laptops, and you’ll find some pretty stark differences between the Apple Store and the Microsoft Store. I know, because I worked in a Microsoft store for almost three years. My time there was educational beyond belief, and when Microsoft closed all its stores, I mourned the communities left behind.

After all, Microsoft Stores invested in communities, directing donations in the form of dollars and employee time to local nonprofits, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts clubs, and free training for anyone who wanted it. And Microsoft offered free services not found in the Apple Store, such as free virus removal, PC tune-ups, and more.

Unfortunately, the drive for profitability and insistence on expensive locations (often in malls) near Apple Stores, combined with the growing pandemic, likely led to the decision to close all stores. And it’s a shame because Microsoft Stores did something else the Apple Store doesn’t: fix 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 irreparable (which is true for Surface Pro to this day), they were never repaired on site. Instead, Microsoft employees exchanged the tablet for a new or refurbished unit and then sent the damaged one in for repair. But you can also repair laptops and desktops in the Microsoft store, even if Dell, Acer or any other company (except Apple) did it.

That was my job at the Microsoft Store: I removed viruses, fixed problems with Outlook and Word, and fixed broken laptops and desktops. That involved replacing old graphics cards, changing hard drives and transferring data, and even changing laptop keyboards and screens. We couldn’t repair all laptops (UltraBooks were nearly unrepairable), but in some cases where we didn’t have the tools on hand, we were able to send devices to a better-equipped facility that could accomplish more than the Store.

That’s important because the Microsoft study found that offering repair options dramatically reduced emissions and waste. The study explicitly states that “enabling repair through device design, spare parts offerings, and repair location [has] significant potential to reduce carbon and waste impacts.” The “locate the repair” part is critical because if you have to drive too far to get repairs done, the greenhouse gases your vehicle emits more than 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 cancel out the emissions saved.

189 miles is pretty far, and if that’s your closest option, you’d probably prefer to mail the device in for repair anyway. But if you were closer, working with someone in person would provide peace of mind about the repair process. Before closing almost all of its outlets, Microsoft had 116 stores, of which more than 80 offered repair services. That’s 80 locations in four countries where people could drive less than 189 miles for repairs. And now that is no longer an option.

What Microsoft should do

The Microsoft Store logo on a street
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Microsoft says it takes the Right to Repair and Environmental Conversation seriously. If that’s true, you should put your money where your mouth is. That takes some tough decisions and spending money, but all good things do. Fancy but irreparable laptops and tablets should 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 much good if there isn’t an easy way to fix those devices. And to that end, Microsoft should reopen its stores, but with a new mission in new locations. Instead of copying the Apple stores and going to expensive mall retail stores, 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 places with a focus on repair, education, and help. The sale of Surface tablets and laptops could continue, but as a side business and not as the goal of 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 can go to the Microsoft Store for help when you run into a problem. 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 also unsustainable, but that’s one 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 technology enthusiast. By partnering with organizations like iFixit, Microsoft could enable Authorized Repair Points of the future: You could empower the mom-and-pop stores you trust to fix your broken HP laptop.

Also, the Microsoft-funded study mentioned that sending a device in the mail for repair or refurbishment didn’t help in the long run if it required air freight to China. Microsoft could turn its stores into warehouses to ship devices to anyone who still lives too far away to drive. The Microsoft Store could perform those repairs or bulk ship to a location to get the work done.

The Microsoft Store could have been the place to learn how to repair your device, buy the tools and parts you need to get the repair done, or take your device with you if the damage is beyond your capabilities. Unfortunately, they are all closed, and that is not the case. For now, all we have is a promise that Microsoft will do something. Only time will tell if it’s just words and study.