Every year, the new devices launched by big brands have gotten faster, thinner, and shinier, but also more locked down and less accessible to repairs and upgrades. Across a decade working in consumer electronics at Apple, Oculus, and Facebook, I felt an increasing sense of unease about the direction the industry was going in. Some of the most advanced outputs of human civilization were built in ways that meant they would end up as expensive paperweights after a few years, or worse, part of the growing global e-waste crisis. This sounds like an impossibly large mission, but I started Framework to fix the consumer electronics industry.
I decided the best way to prove it’s possible to build excellent products that are designed to last is by actually building one! Our first product is the Framework Laptop, which we kicked off at the same time as forming the company in January 2020. A lesson I carried in from early Oculus is that the right set of passionate individuals can move incredibly fast and accomplish the seemingly impossible before big companies even notice the world changing around them. I quickly pulled together some of the best people I had worked with in the past.
Also critical in this was building a coalition of partners who believed in the importance of our mission. It worked in our favor that the notebook industry is so mature and centralized in one spot in Taiwan. We were able to meet with just about every module supplier and manufacturer in the computing industry across the course of a month and selected the ones most willing to buck the trends and build something better for people and the planet with us. All of this was going surprisingly smoothly until March 2021, when our program kickoff trip in Taipei felt a little different. With deep and painful experience from SARS outbreaks earlier, Taiwan quickly started to shut down infrastructure. We were able to wrap up our kickoff meeting and grabbed one of the last flights out of the country before the borders closed.
Suddenly we had to figure out how to remake a consumer electronics category as a small team that could no longer visit our manufacturing partners or even each other in person. An interesting thing about startups is that there are so many different traps, pitfalls, and ways that a new company can die that any single additional one doesn’t feel particularly burdensome. You can throw it on the big pile of problems to solve and keep going, so that’s what we did!
In some ways, the actual design and engineering of the Framework Laptop was refreshingly straightforward. After many years building VR headsets where it was never clear exactly what consumers needed or was even technically plausible, we found an enormous wealth of information available for what was wrong with notebooks. From our own personal experiences, from interacting with community members, and from seeing where systems scored poorly on iFixit, press reviews, and YouTube teardowns, we understood everything that stood in the way of laptops being repairable.
We started by establishing the table stakes requirements for the product. We decided that repairability and upgradability couldn’t come as a tradeoff. We needed to build a notebook that was as thin, light, and powerful as what consumers would otherwise buy, and then within those constraints, make it as modular as possible. Additionally, we felt it was important to trust and respect the end user by providing you with repair manuals, documentation, open and transparent communication, and the physical tools to enable you to do anything you would like to with the product. On the last point, we actually include a screwdriver in the box with every laptop to drive home the idea that the product is open for repair and upgrade.
When designing for repairability and upgradeability, we followed a few core principles. We aimed to make every repair possible for someone who had never been inside a computer before by providing clear labelling and scannable QR codes for instructions. We also focused on simplifying repairs and upgrades for the most common scenarios like battery replacement and memory and storage upgrades. We kept things convenient and user friendly by avoiding glue and tape, minimizing the number of unique fasteners, and even including a few spare screws in the case for when one inevitably disappears into the void during a repair.
We also drew upon the modularity that exists already in the PC space wherever we could. We used standards like SO-DIMM memory and M.2 storage to let customers bring their own off-the-shelf modules where we could. We took advantage of USB-C for our Expansion Card system that lets every port on the system be user-selectable. Because this is a popular standard, it also made it easy for us to release open source reference designs and documentations to enable community creation of new cards using home 3D printers and hobby PCB fab services.
We’re seeing some incredible designs in development already, from UART bridges to dual USB-C hubs to snack drawers (!!!). In addition to hobbyists being able to satisfy their own needs, we’re looking forward to opening a marketplace to enable people to be able to share modules they develop with each other.
Another great thing about the PC space is that there is a large base of existing users who inherently understand why repair and upgrade is useful. Our mission and product resonate with that audience immediately, but we’re happy to see the early interest beyond that group as well. People worldwide are increasingly aware of the impacts of e-waste and the perils of locked down, glued together, and ultimately disposable devices. We’re excited to continue to do our part in fixing this, one product at a time.
Nirav Patel is the Founder and CEO of Framework, where he is focused on fixing the Consumer Electronics industry. Before that, he was part of the founding team of Oculus and led the Hardware team there.
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