Apple’s New Repair Policy Isn’t a Total Fix

It’s a step in the right direction, but the company still has a ton of control over your iPhone

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

LLast week, Apple made a stunning change to its repair policy. After years of tightly controlling who can fix its devices, independent repair shops will now be able to buy parts and get repair guides directly from Apple without paying the tech giant. But while the move sounds like a change of heart, it may be just the smokescreen Apple needs to avoid Right to Repair laws that could cost it a lot more in the long run.

Prior to the change, Apple’s preferred method for users to repair their iPhone would be to take it to an Apple store or what is known as an Apple-Authorized Service Provider (AASP). The latter third parties had strict limitations. They had to pay Apple in order to qualify for the program, and Apple would only allow them to perform certain common repairs like replacing a battery or screen. For other repairs, even those that might be just as simple — like replacing a charging port or camera — they would be required to send the customer’s phone back to Apple itself.

This made life hard for independent repair shops. Their choices were either to comply with Apple’s rules — limiting both their choice in parts suppliers and services they could offer — or to remain “unauthorized” and lose access to official Apple parts entirely. It also wasn’t great for consumers. They got a few more places you could turn to for a battery or screen replacement, but for the most part their options were still just as limited. The only one this arrangement seemed good for was Apple.

For years, the Right to Repair movement, which believes that consumers should have the freedom to fix their gadgets on their own terms, has pushed for legislation that would force manufacturers to sell replacement parts to everyone — not just the repair shops they choose — and publish the documentation necessary to repair their products.

“This isn’t Right to Repair. It’s more like Apple deciding who has the Right to Repair.”

Historically, Apple has resisted such legislation. While the new Independent Repair Provider (or IRP) program may seem like a concession on this front, it still keeps Apple at the center of the system. Any repair shop can buy parts and get access to official documentation, as long as they complete a free training course, but Apple still won’t sell parts to just anyone. If you want to replace your own screen, for example, you’ll have to buy aftermarket parts — those sold by third-party vendors — which could void your warranty.

“Apple isn’t giving up control for deciding how consumers can get their devices fixed,” says Kay-Kay Clapp, director of communications at repair guide site and consumer advocacy group iFixit. The company has pushed for Right to Repair legislation that would force tech companies to sell parts to consumers and provide the documentation they need to fix their own gadgets. This move, says Clapp, falls short of that ideal. “This isn’t Right to Repair. It’s more like Apple deciding who has the Right to Repair.”

Apple maintains this soft control by deciding what counts as a “repair shop.” In contrast to the company’s developer program, which allows anyone with a laptop (and $100 a year) to sign up, Apple will only allow businesses in “commercially zoned areas” to join the IRP. In other words, if you wanted to start a repair business out of your garage, Apple won’t help you out.

The company has insisted that users performing their own repairs is unsafe — a strange claim to make when people frequently repair their own car or home, which can be much more dangerous — and in some cases, it has tried to argue repairs aren’t necessary at all. In 2017, Apple’s vice president of policy and social initiatives Lisa Jackson said that “I don’t think you can say repairability equals longevity,” instead arguing that since Apple designs its products to last, repairing a device should be a last resort, rather than a first option.

However, later that year, Apple found itself at the center of a major battery scandal, colloquially known as Batterygate. As iPhone batteries got older, it became harder to supply the necessary power to keep the phone running. Drawing too much power could cause the phone to randomly shut down. So, rather than recommend battery replacements, Apple controversially throttled the phone’s performance. A slower phone, in Apple’s eyes, was better than a dead one.

iPhone owners disagreed. Once Apple’s decision to throttle phones was uncovered, it led to a class action lawsuit and such a strong backlash that Apple eventually offered cheap battery replacements to appease its customers. For $30 (down from the normal $80), customers could get a brand new battery, even if there was nothing apparently wrong with it.

Prior to Batterygate, it likely wasn’t as widely known that replacing the battery could extend the life of your phone, but the story and subsequent repair program raised enough awareness to have an impact. Over the next year, nearly 10 million more people than normal replaced their batteries, giving their phones an even longer lifespan than Apple devices are already known for. It’s unclear how much this impacted overall iPhone sales, but the safe money is that it didn’t help. Analysts estimated that iPhone unit sales in Q4 2018 — the holiday season one year after Apple launched its cheap replacement program — were down anywhere from 7% to 15%.

Apple may also be ceding ground for a more practical reason: it simply can’t keep up with all the repairs consumers need.

If the kind of legislation that Right to Repair advocates want became the law of the land, third-party repairs might become more common and cheaper. That could even further impact Apple’s sales. Making this change to its repair program now can help Apple can stave off bigger reforms later. “There’s no doubt that Apple’s concession was strategic, and in the short term, I think it will make the fight harder,” says Clapp. “By opening up a new repair channel through independent repair shops, Apple appears to be meeting consumer demand by providing them with more repair options to get their devices fixed. This move will serve as a strong bargaining chip for Apple against proponents of Right to Repair.”

But Apple may also be ceding ground for a more practical reason: it simply can’t keep up with all the repairs consumers need. As of January 2019, there were over 900 million active iPhones in the world. “Apple’s concession still proves that they don’t have the workforce to handle the volume of repairs generated from their own market success,” says Clapp. There are only so many Genius Bars in the world, and outsourcing repairs to third party shops can help Apple in the long run, especially in rural areas or countries where Apple doesn’t have quite as many of its own stores.

Still, unlike the refurbished parts that independent shops often use, Apple’s parts will continue to come with high price tags, which can keep even third-party repairs expensive. And unless the company has another change of heart, you still won’t be able to buy those expensive parts to fix your phone yourself. Apple may be gesturing in the direction of being more repair-friendly, but there’s still a long way to go.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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