Nirav Patel spent a long time building cutting-edge hardware, both at Apple and at Oculus. But when he founded his own company, Framework, he picked a decidedly more mature (and maybe less exciting) product to focus on: PCs.
The Framework Laptop, the company's first product, is a $999, 13.5-inch clamshell that looks and feels a lot like, well, every other laptop on the market. Except for the fact that you can take it apart, practically piece by piece, and repair or upgrade nearly everything inside. From the processor to the keyboard to the memory to the battery, Framework's laptop is a vision for a future that gives users more control over their gadgets, and gives longer life to the gadgets themselves.
Patel joined the Source Code Podcast to discuss the journey of making the Framework Laptop, how the industry is changing thanks to right-to-repair laws and a societal turn toward conservation, the challenges faced by Framework and other companies making modular and upgradeable devices and what phones should learn from jeans.
You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Let's just start at the beginning. Tell me how you got started working on Framework.
So I've been in consumer electronics for about a decade across Apple, and then part of the founding team of Oculus, going into Facebook. And across that time that I just really consistently saw a trend in the consumer electronics industry that was pretty worrying. It was really the decreasing level of consumer ownership, and the increasing behavior of treating products as disposable. Even though these are the most advanced, expensive outputs of civilization, we're treating them like they're a pair of sneakers, or a pair of jeans that kind of wear through and that goes out into the trash.
Even worse, in some cases! People keep jeans longer than they keep their phones.
That's true! And it felt like it was very clearly not something that was going to fix itself. And so the genesis of Framework was really that it can't possibly be that this is the right thing to do. There must be a way to align the incentives to make longevity actually work.
I think a lot of people have had that thought before. Some have even tried to do it. And at least as far as I can tell, it has never, ever, ever gone well. So even in those early days, how do you get from "this is a thing I should do" to "there is a company I should build here?"
A lot of it really comes down to finding the right audience and building the right product. This was so critical for us at Oculus as we tried to build a VR headset for the masses. We picked the right audience from the start: people who inherently were interested in what we were doing and could actually enjoy the thing that we could build at that time.
And so for Framework, it was like, what's the audience we can go to who sort of get the idea that products should be ownable and modifiable and upgradable and repairable? Who can we start with and be able to grow from? And it was very clear that actually, looking at consumer electronics, one of the few categories where that does still apply is the PC space. Specifically on desktops, where there's an incredibly rich and robust ecosystem of modularity, and being able to tinker with and customize and upgrade your PC on a desktop. And these are the same people who need portable machines as well, who buy notebooks but can't bring the same behaviors over.
And how do you bear this out as a product? I keep pressing at the process of this, because I've spent a lot of time over the last decade thinking modular gadgets were the future. There was the Motorola Atrix. And then Project Ara at Google. And all these interesting things. Intellectually, they make total sense, right? It's very hard to make the case against the idea of the system you're talking about. And then, for whatever reason, they never seem to work.
Actually, Ara was a really good case study for us … of what not to do.
[Ara] picked a category that was just inherently difficult. Phones are still a very, very difficult category to break into, especially in the U.S., but also in many other countries where the access to consumers is disintermediated by carriers. It's a very hard thing to overcome.
But beyond that, the thing that we learned from Ara is: Don't build a product that's conceptually interesting but practically not competitive. And we look at Ara and it's this really conceptually interesting product. But it's strange-looking, and it takes explaining. It's thick, and it's heavy, and it's expensive. Had they actually shipped it, I don't think it would have actually succeeded in the market. And they decided, perhaps wisely, to not ship it.
Don't build a product that's conceptually interesting but practically not competitive.
For us, that was a very clear lesson: If we're going to go and compete with Apple and Dell and HP and Lenovo, we better build a product that looks and feels and behaves at the same level as what consumers are already buying from those brands. And then within those constraints, let's make it as repairable and upgradable and customizable as we possibly can.
Google's ill-fated Project Ara modular phone.Photo: Google
Help me understand the overlapping Venn diagram of repairability/upgradability and environmental friendliness. On one hand, it's very obvious: the thing lasts longer, good for the environment. But are there places where those two things are totally different, or even at odds, or do they tend to overlap and help each other?
They tend to overlap. And it's really all about longevity. Being able to manufacture a thing out of these oftentimes rare materials or environmentally damaging materials to extract from the environment and process and build into a product, and having that last for as long as possible in a usable state, as opposed to it needing to be de-processed and recycled and turned back into materials or sitting in a landfill, causing the need for another new one to be extracted and processed and built. So from that perspective, longevity is absolutely the key to reducing environmental impact.
The one place that it does kind of trade off, that actually we're coming up with interesting ways to counteract, is that a lot of the behaviors around being able to upgrade and modify mean that people who might otherwise hesitate to upgrade a CPU, or buy more RAM, will go and do that. And so for that person who is upgrading their mainboard, literally yearly, or upgrading RAM or storage yearly, that person's environmental impact may be going up. But the way we can mitigate that is by making sure that those modules that are coming out of that machine continue to get used somewhere, rather than sitting in a drawer or going into the landfill. That's where being modular and being upgradable means that that product, or that object, or that module, has a life beyond that initial sale and that initial user.
That brings up the ecosystem question, which is a thing I'm very curious about. It's very easy to just say, "We've exposed all the screws, thus it is repairable, congratulations to us." But it feels like — and again, I think this goes back to learning from Project Ara what not to do — you have to build a relatively huge ecosystem around you. All the way from how people recycle stuff, to the parts that people buy, to the accessories.
So many of these projects have failed because the company that made them stopped caring about them. And I think every one of those that happens makes it harder for the next company. It feels like the easiest way to get around that is to make the Framework Laptop much bigger than just Framework. Am I thinking about that the right way?
That's absolutely right. And actually, I'm glad you brought up Ara on that, because Ara was an example of doing that right! They had started up this incredible program to build an ecosystem. It just died on the vine. And actually, that's the worst part, because then every one of those companies who participated in that and started building their module, putting resources into it and not shipping it, then looks and says, "Oh, I got burned once, do I want to [get] burned again by another ecosystem play?" And so for us, we need to build the install base, we need to build every module that we need to, to be able to prove that we have a self-sustaining ecosystem that can support third-party businesses. We have gotten a lot of interest from companies who are excited about what we're doing and want to participate, even though they know that there's a risk in jumping into any ecosystem.
We've gotten some really fun and interesting things. Someone made a miniature snack drawer, where you can fit like three raisins. Really it's to store SD cards or other things like that, but it's called the Snack Drawer. But we want to keep going from there. Even something as complex as a mainboard, we'd love to work with companies that make mainboards for PCs and be able to develop custom mainboards to be able to enable more options within the laptop.
What does it take to kickstart that? How big do you have to be before that ecosystem trusts you?
That is the key question. It ultimately boils down to ROI. And the same really applies for any ecosystem-based platform, if you look at app stores or game consoles. If you're building a small game title or small application, you don't need that big of an install base, especially if it's something that appeals to a specific audience that really wants the thing that you're building. But then as you get into AAA gaming titles or big applications or more generally applicable content, it takes a bigger install base to be able to recoup your investment.
The Snack Drawer cost nothing; it was just one one guy, in his basement or apartment or whatever, making this cool idea. But someone building an ARM-based mainboard for a Framework Laptop? That takes a bigger install base to get that ROI.
How much did price figure into your planning? Everybody loves PC enthusiasts, because they'll spend money on this stuff, unlike everyone else on planet Earth. But you landed at a fairly down-the-middle price point. Was $999 something you had in your mind from the beginning?
That was a magic number for us. The thing about PC enthusiasts is that they're willing to spend, but they want to get a good value for what they're spending money on. If our product, spec for spec and dollar for dollar, didn't stack up well against Dell or HP or Lenovo, people wouldn't buy it. They would look at that and say, "I like the idea, but I'm not sure I want to pay more just for that." So it was really important for us not to make longevity be something we charge a premium for.
The thing about PC enthusiasts is that they're willing to spend, but they want to get a good value for what they're spending money on.
What do you make of the right-to-repair stuff happening right now? It obviously aligns with your values and interests. But on the other hand, it doesn't seem like right-to-repair legislation is going to affect you in the long run nearly as much as it would affect your competitors.
Yeah, it doesn't affect us, particularly, as far as I can tell. We're doing everything that we need to to both actually do the right thing for consumers and also comply with everything that's being put forward around right-to-repair legislation. So we're absolutely in favor. It's the right thing to do for consumers, it's the right thing for the environment, and the industry is going to come around one way or another.
What happens to you when suddenly, this kind of repairability is table-stakes? If the HPs and Dells and Apples and Microsofts of the world come around to getting a lot more repairable, what do you do?
It's an interesting question. We do want to encourage the industry to go in the direction that we're going. We see that as a positive, just full stop. And for us, our focus really is on fulfilling the upgradability and the repairability and the customization at a level that's deeper than just what the letter of the law requires. To actually really meaningfully give consumers ownership and control of the products they have, and be able to let them customize and upgrade and use it for as long as they'd like.
I think what we'll see in practice is that there will be very specific regulations around things like not using adhesives on batteries, or making a battery available for a certain number of years post-sale, that obviously companies will comply with rather than facing whatever fines or restrictions come in as an alternative. But they won't go and really embrace that, and allow people to, for example, upgrade their mainboard years later to get more performance or do deep customization of the products that they have.
Almost every part of the Framework Laptop is customizable, including the frame.Photo: Framework
How do you make the business model of all of that work? The idea of planned obsolescence and annual upgrades has made a lot of companies a lot of money, and I think that's one of the reasons this is going to be hard to change. But you're in a position of saying "Buy our laptop, and you won't need to upgrade it for a very long time." How do you make that work as a business?
This is the nice thing about going into mature industries: You can come in with a counterposition business model that would never work for any of the incumbents. For Apple or HP or Dell or Lenovo to turn around and say, "We're going to make our products last twice as long," that product manager, that executive is going to go to the board and the board is going to sack them.
We're starting from zero revenue, we're starting from zero market share, it's all just growth from here. And it doesn't matter to us that our products are going to last longer, and we're going to sell fewer of them over the long term. In fact, for every category that we go into, we explicitly have the goal to reduce the total revenue of that category, which is an insane thing on the face of it. But that is legitimately what we want to do.
Then over the long term, the focus is really on that ecosystem development. We want to build that healthy install base, and make longevity work for consumers and work for us as a business. We want to build that marketplace and be able to help guide that activity.
Does this playbook work on everything? Could you do a Framework Phone based on the same theories and have it work the same way?
I think from an audience and environmental and planetary need perspective, it's clear that we need to do this across all consumer electronics. It's really just a matter of sequencing through the right categories, and especially the right audiences, finding categories where there is this early-adopter audience who gets the benefits of upgradability and longevity to start with and then be able to grow into more mainstream audiences from there.
I can't think of any category in consumer electronics where this wouldn't work.
I can't think of any category in consumer electronics where this wouldn't work.
Let's talk about TVs for a minute, because that's one that I know you're interested in. You wrote in a blog post that TVs should be dumb, but that is so far from where the industry is going. I'm buying cheap TVs that are subsidized by the ads that are being sold to me!
It is a harder audience to crack, or harder market to crack. The interesting thing there is, when you look at audio and video, projectors still operate in this model. Your projector, in almost every case, is a dumb projector, and you plug smart things into a system around it. So there are definitely these opportunities to extract learnings from the places that this already happens, and then bring them into the categories where it's not happening.
So I think there are models for how to make this work. TVs, they are harder. We actually did think a lot about TVs … and didn't start with a TV.
Are there other big markets you're looking at and thinking about?
I'm not going to go into specifics on products. But we really do like these categories that have those enthusiasts. It's such an obvious thing to do, to start with an enthusiast who just needs more and needs better, and to be able to grow from there.
The other thing that we like a lot, of course, is the environmentally conscious consumers. That's spread across every category of consumer electronics. And in just about every category, none of the options they have available in front of them are designed to be environmentally friendly. Or they'll be some very minimal, greenwashing thing — "we used 5% ocean plastic in one of the tiny parts of the product, and that's how we're being green."
And it seems like you're making a pretty big bet that that is increasingly going up the list of things people care about. That they care more about the environmental effect of the stuff they buy than the megapixel count in the camera. Just to name a random thing.
Yeah, we see it across other industries: We see in apparel, we see it in consumer packaged goods, we see it in food. A ton of companies are being incredibly successful, legitimately solving for environmentally damaging things that their industries are doing. Looking at Beyond Meat or Impossible, or Everlane. Patagonia's an old-school example. It works! Consumers trust it and believe in it because it matters.