Repairs, Tweaks and Choice – Mobile Phones

May 9, 2008

in Accelerating Innovation, Mobility, research

18 months ago I bought my daughter a Nokia n73 in India as a birthday present. At the time it was about the coolest phone I could get for her with a 3mpx auto focus camera etc. She’s a torture test user. The first keyboard lasted one year before the whole joystick and keypad underpinnings needed replacing. (I did it with parts from eBay out of Hong Kong with instructions by YouTube). Just over a month ago the keyboard was dead again and this time the screen was cracked (stepped on) and the “zoom” / “volume” button was broken. The case was highly scuffed. It sounds bad and yet I think this is quite typical for a teenager who’s phone handles thousands of text messages. So broken phone in hand I took it back to India to get it repaired. In the US I would have no idea where to take it… and the cost would probably be prohibitive.

Here’s what I spent on it – a total of Rs. 2300 (less than $60). Rs. 1600 for a new “original” case (could have spent Rs. 350 for a knock-off case – couldn’t really tell the difference between the original and the knock-off), Rs. 300 for the joystick and Rs. 400 on the repair – changing of the case, replacing the joystick and keyboard, fixing the zoom which wasn’t working smoothly. And all of this done in one hour, in my presence. I was offered Rs. 4800 ($120) for the phone prior to the repairs. Cost of fixing was Rs. 2300 ($60). That’s half the price of what I would pay for a new phone.

You would be amazed at the number of “mobile” repairers. Most repairs are simple like the keyboard and case above. Some like the volume control required a little more expertise and surgery on the motherboard. Their equipment is almost non existent. A few in the building had a laptop and could update software etc. It’s a relatively low cost profession to get into. There’s no obvious qualifications and I’d expect that it is very competitive.

These are pictures of repair desks in the upper floor of Manish Market. While many of them were fixing the “China Phones” fixing Nokias and other models was common too. In fact one of Nokia’s strengths (not sure if by design or because of “fake” parts) is the availability of cases and keyboards. You can pick these up almost anywhere. Downstairs in Manish market these parts were all being wholesaled. You are in a place where anyphone can be fixed or even just upgraded with a new case etc.

At one stall I stopped and asked him about the “knowledge” and he responded that he had a “guru” (mentor). I tried to share that I’d learned some of this via YouTube and he looked at me completely blankly. Many of these repairers were sitting side by side. I’m not sure if they were “guru training” sessions or not. I was pointed to one larger repair outlet/store that was also providing training courses.

When I heard Jan Chipchase speak recently about these repair centers he reinforced how much easier it is to get into this repair business than the TV repair business. Both by “number” (more handsets than TV’s) and the limited space requirements or even can repair almost anywhere nature of this business.

I’d think a good portion of the business is also refurbishment. I didn’t see beaten up second hand phones for sale. Most are gleaming in new cases. These phones are usually recent 1 year to 18 months old and selling for approx half the cost of a new phone. It’s also a signal that “trading” one’s phone is common practice. Certainly the upper market kids I’ve interviewed are wanting a new phone and trading them in around the year point.

The repair market is central to accelerating learning and enabling rapid upgrading of phones. At first one just wants access. Then when the phone is also a radio that’s a “free” bonus. If it has a memory card they can also then play the music they want. Ringtones become a big thing too. The mobile is rapidly introducing more than just communications to the bottom of the pyramid.

We may not feel that a new mobile is much to brag about (although iPhone users like flaunting them!). For the most part they are inferior to other things we have that do…. music, TV, Video, surfing, mail, radio, clock, etc… If you have never had any of these you perspective is quite different.

For many the first phone brings greater economic success. Then you want to use it to express yourself. It’s like having a first car and then getting air conditioning in the second. I suspect that music is the single biggest driver for the first upgrade and increasingly that means the phone needs a memory card. A camera is the other driver although most phones have one now. Both of these create a demand for more sharing which bluetooth helps. Concurrently speaker phones and louder speakers become interesting. It’s now a tool for the family and entertainment as well as business. Trading up doesn’t take long.

Obvious pain points for trading up. Contacts! Although many don’t keep the contacts or the info on the phones as the mobile may not be private or personal in the sense that we treat it. At home anyone may use it. Example is used by a wife who may erase who she called so the cost wasn’t on her phone. And this sort of brings us back full circle. It also helps to explain why 12 and 13 year olds are so knowledgeable. They may well have brought the phone into the household. The mobile is a household decision or head of household decision.

When phones and aspirational new cases, new features and accessories are everywhere, it is easy to see that trading up, getting repairs and doing deals on a new mobile is part of the conversation. Most importantly this conversation is not controlled by the operators. As they don’t subsidize the phones and most users are prepaid, the phone you want and use is a personal choice. The economics not skewed by contracts in fact they are more likely to be influenced by resale value and availability of low cost parts. Whether by happenstance or design it remains one of the reasons Nokia has such a dominant share in India.

One learning then perhaps for many products in the emerging market. How do you create a robust repair and resale market? For developed markets… how do you do the same and empower DIY repairs? Also see Jan Chipchase’s post on informal repair cultures – Cultures of Repair, Innovation – at the end, he raises the question – “given the range of resources and skills available what would it take to turn cultures of repair into cultures of innovation?” I think it is already happening!

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