Apple Grants Repair Indulgence for iPhones
Headlines aside, the Cupertino company gave little ground with its Self Service Repair program. But Apple’s abandonment of its own anti-repair talking points is the real news.
Save your huzzahs and whatever you do, do not pop the champagne. Apple did not just ‘cave’ to the right to repair movement, and the fight for an actual, legal right to repair is more important now than ever.
The occasion for this reminder is, of course, the little-‘m’ momentous announcement by Apple this morning that it would make “Apple parts, tools, and manuals” available to “individual consumers” for self repair — starting with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13.”
Apple Announces Self Service Repair
In its announcement, Apple said that its new Self Service Repair program will allow customers “who are comfortable with completing their own repairs” to access Apple genuine parts and tools. The program is available for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 products, but Apple said it will soon add Mac computers featuring M1 chips. The program will be available early next year in the US and “additional countries” in 2022.
Apple described a multi-phase program that will focus initially on “the most commonly serviced modules” like iPhone displays, batteries, and cameras.” Support for additional repairs will be available next year, the company said.
Customers who want to repair their own iPhone can order parts from an Apple store that offers more than 200 individual parts and tools linked to common phone repairs. Customers who return their broken gear to Apple will further get a credit towards their purchase.
“Creating greater access to Apple genuine parts gives our customers even more choice if a repair is needed,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.
Don’t get me wrong - a statement like that from Apple’s COO is a HUGE about face for Apple, which has spent tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars promoting the idea that Apple products are sacrosanct and that only Apple authorized technicians should be allowed poke around inside them.
Simply having Apple executives acknowledge that its customers should have a choice to repair their own stuff is essentially a 180 degree switch - and evidence that Apple is letting go of the substance of its anti-repair arguments including the laughable “voided warranty” “precious intellectual property” and “dangerous exploding battery” scare tactics they’ve long promulgated - with considerable success, it should be noted.
Here’s the full quote:
“Apple builds durable products designed to endure the rigors of everyday use. When an Apple product requires repair, it can be serviced by trained technicians using Apple genuine parts at thousands of locations, including Apple (in-store or by mail), AASPs, Independent Repair Providers, and now product owners who are capable of performing repairs themselves.
That development, more than the Self Service Repair program itself, is the real news here.
"This is a huge milestone for the Right to Repair. One of the most visible opponents to repair access is reversing course, and Apple’s move shows that what repair advocates have been asking for was always possible,” said US PIRG, the Public Interest Research Group, in a statement. “After years of industry lobbyists telling lawmakers that sharing access to parts, service tools and manuals would result in safety, security and intellectual property risks, Apple’s sudden change indicates these concerns were overblown. Right to Repair is breaking through.”
iFixit echoed those sentiments in a post celebrating the announcement, noting that vague scaremongering about voided warranties and physical risks has been cast aside in the program’s unveiling.
“This move invalidates many of the arguments Apple and other manufacturers have used against the right to repair,” wrote iFixit’s Elizabeth Chamberlain in a blog post. “Liability? You understand the risks, and won’t sue Apple if you damage your device, or stab yourself in the palm with a screwdriver. Warranties? Although it’s illegal to void a warranty for a DIY repair, people worry. Apple’s program should tell motivated fixers that their warranty is intact.”
Not A Right - Just An Indulgence
As for the program itself? It’s important to note the (substantial) daylight between what Apple has promised it will do under its voluntary Self Service Repair program and what a legal right to repair would demand of the Cupertino firm.
Most of the proposed state right to repair laws, for example, would require device makers like Apple who make software, schematics and parts available to authorized service and repair providers (say: Apple’s Genius Bar or authorized repair providers) to also make them available to device owners and independent repair shops. Those laws wouldn’t be limited to any particular devices or models. Essentially: any device that you offer authorized service and repair for would be covered, leveling the playing field by providing consumers and independent repair shops the same information and tools available to authorized repair providers.
To put it bluntly: Self Service Repair is not that. Nor is it a whole hearted embrace of the right to repair. Think of it more like an indulgence, of the kind that Popes and the Vatican used to hand out to their monied and sin-bound faithful in the Middle Ages.
As with papal indulgences, Apple’s Self Service Repair program is purely discretionary. And, like the indulgence system, it is best understood as a self-serving scheme to make money wrapped in the mantle of big-minded tolerance. To understand why that’s the case, you need to look closely at what Apple is and is not doing with its program.
First, there’s the scope: Apple is limiting this program to its two most recent iPhone models - not the substantial population of legacy iPhones out in circulation - the devices most in need of repair.
Sure, Apple says it will expand the program slowly - at its own speed and discretion, of course. For now, the company is sketchy of the details of how it will be expanded. Apple, for example, has not defined the final scope of the repair program, nor has it promised that the program will eventually encompass all the hardware it supports. Will it be months to roll out the program to all its hardware? Years? Decades? Apple isn’t saying.
Independent Repair Shops Need Not Apply
The other thing to note about Apple’s Self Service Repair program is that it is an Apple-only program oriented to move higher volumes of Apple authorized parts through Apple’s e-commerce website.
Sure, that’s better than not offering replacement parts at all. And Apple agreeing to publish service documentation and repair manuals is a big step forward. But such concessions are a far cry from an ecumenical repair program that would simply support customers who wish to fix their iPhones, MacBooks and other Apple gear using whatever parts and talent they can get their hands on.
So, for example, the program is notably for individual customers, not independent repair shops. That seems like a distinction without a difference in that individual repair shops can easily pose as customers, but we can imagine that Apple will limit how many parts any customer can buy through its official store to shut out customers doing a high volume of repairs.
It goes without saying, as well, that so long as Apple controls the flow of parts and information for repairs, it can use that leverage to throttle customer repairs as much as it wants. Want to replace that broken iPhone 6 screen? Sorry. We don’t do that. Want to fix an iPhone 13 screen? Absolutely! The screen will cost you $450…or we’ll send you a replacement iPhone 13 for $475! Your choice!
Again - not a right. An indulgence.
A Slightly Friendlier Monopoly
As for parts, this program doesn’t really extend a helping hand to customers who want to use parts scavenged from a decommissioned device they already own, purchased via eBay or Facebook Marketplace or other sources.
Unsaid in Apple’s announcement is whether the company will support an open and competitive market for parts and service for its products - akin to the robust market that exist for automobile parts and service - or simply trim its parts and service monopoly to a parts and service monopoly that allows some kinds of customer self-service.
In fact, it is almost certain that Apple is not intending to create such a market. Look no further than the blow up over screen replacements for Apple’s new iPhone 13. In its initial release of the phone, Apple disabled the FaceId facial recognition security feature on phones that had the screen replaced - even when the replacement screen was an Apple authorized part. That move would have essentially driven independent phone repair shops out of business, as something like 80% to 90% of their repair business is linked to screen replacements. After intense backlash, Apple backtracked and said it would issue a software update that would keep FaceID working on iPhone 13 devices that had a screen replaced outside of Apple’s authorized repair network.
That was a tactical victory for the right to repair movement, but hardly the end of the war. So too with this new program.
Software Based Barriers to Repair
iFixit, the Internet’s leading crowd-sourced right to repair website, noted in its analysis of the announcement (with the awesome headline “Everyone is a Genius!”) that Apple is modeling self-service repairs on “their infamously restrictive Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program.” The repair software issued to participants in that program “doesn’t allow an IRP member to replace a broken part with one taken from another Apple device; it requires scanning both the serial of an Apple-purchased replacement and the phone itself,” iFixit said, citing IRP participants. Also unclear is whether the software issued as part of the Self Service Repair program will allow customers to restore battery health readings, TrueTone features, or remove “genuine” part warnings - all tactics that Apple uses to subtly degrade the performance and usability of products that are repaired outside of its authorized repair monopoly.
The devil is in the details and repair advocates will need to hold Apple’s feet to the fire to make sure that the new Self Service Repair program allows consumers to use parts from any source, including harvested parts and third party components, iFixit founder Kyle Wiens told me.
To make sure Apple’s new Self Service Repair isn’t just a zig and a zag on the way to the same old monopoly, the repair and security communities will need to scrutinize the new software Apple says it will release to aid customers to make sure the company isn't creating a monopoly on service parts under the guise of customer self-repair.
An Indulgence Isn’t A Right
Of course, nothing about this program means that the need for a legally enshrined right to repair our stuff is any less urgent today than it was yesterday. For one thing: Apple is just one personal electronics maker, while digital right to repair legislation would apply to broad swaths of the economy - from consumer electronics to home appliances to agricultural equipment and machinery.
Second, indulgences aren’t rights. Apple can change or kill its Self Service Repair program at any time and for any reason, effectively ending its flirtation with customer repair.
Long and short - Cupertino is feeling the heat on its anti repair activism and restrictive product ecosystems. If I had to guess, at least some of that pressure is coming from the company’s own engineering team and staff. This program is an effort to stem the bleeding while still - potentially - leaving the company’s repair and service monopoly plans mostly intact. It will be up to us to keep the heat on Apple by exposing the contradictions and limitations in its Self Service Repair program - and to push for a true, legal right to repair that holds not just Apple’s feet to the fire, but the fee of every other device, appliance and equipment maker.