Apple’s Right-to-Repair U-Turn

Celebrate, but keep your eye on the prize

A picture of a disassembled Iphone from Ifixit’s “IPhone 12 Pro Max Teardown,” it is surmounted with the Apple “Think Different” wordmark; in the bottom corner, behind the Ifixit logo, is Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars with a speech bubble that reads “It’s a trap?”
Image: Ifixit, Apple, Lucasfilm

It’s been a pretty great week. Ever since Apple announced that it would sell its customers spare parts and tools to affect their own repairs, and supply them with the documentation to do so, I’ve been thrilled to do my comrades’ online victory laps. For a decade, I’ve fought alongside my pals in the Right to Repair movement against a coalition of the best-capitalized, most powerful multinational companies in the world, who used their incredible might to trample all other considerations: fairness, climate justice, safety, and security.

We introduced dozens of state right to repair bills — bills that set out the principle that when you buy a product, you should get to decide who fixes it — and watched as, time and again, a coalition of big business, led by Apple, used lies and scare-talk to convince lawmakers to vote the bills down.

We were outmaneuvered and outmatched but never overpowered. We know that we’re right, so we kept showing up, kept fighting, and kept the faith, and we’ve begun to win. First came the Massachusetts Right to Repair ballot initiative, then the New York Right to Repair bill, then the FTC’s Right to Repair enforcement order, and the President’s Executive Order on competition, which took a strong stance on right to repair.

For repair fans, Apple has been public enemy number one, the public standard-bearer for shameless lies about the dangers of repair. This was especially galling for those of us who started our journey in technology with Apple products, which were once so repair-friendly that every computer shipped with a schematic so you could take it apart, fix it, improve it, and put it back together.

It wasn’t just us. Apple’s stakeholders were increasingly and vocally disappointed with the company’s stance on repair. Everyone from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to its shareholders to its own employees had called the company out on its repair stance.

As Apple’s impact on the environment, on customers’ finances, and on the independent repair sector grew more visible, it was harder to maintain the fiction that Apple was waging war on repair to protect its customers. That fiction grew even less credible when Apple CEO Tim Cook warned his shareholders that Apple’s profits would fall unless they could force its customers to retire their phones more often.

Despite all this, Apple’s announcement caught us all by (pleasant) surprise. Right up to that day, the company was adamant that letting us fix our stuff would lead to identity theft and exploding phones.

It’s impossible for outsiders to know why Apple made this U-turn, but I have an (educated) guess. I think that within Apple, there are two factions:

  • Hard-liners who hate independent repair and are adamant that the company’s future depends on it having the unilateral ability to decide when and whether your device is fixed, and by whom; and
  • Pro-repair advocates who think that it’s fairer, more popular, and more environmentally sustainable to let Apple’s customers make that choice, with Apple attracting customers to its repair shops by offering a service that’s reasonably priced and reliable (rather than by banning the competition).

Some combination of the looming threat of regulatory enforcement, legislation, shareholder battles, publicity bloodbaths, and angry employees in a fiercely competitive job environment tipped the balance of power to the pro-repair faction within the company.

But that doesn’t make the anti-repair camp go away. They didn’t give ground because they see independent repair as a legitimate or desirable activity — they capitulated because open, declared war on repair was costing the company more than it extracted from monopoly repair price-gouging.

They still hate independent repair and will do whatever they can to minimize or extinguish the activity. There are lots of ways to accomplish that goal while still offering a “Self-Service Repair” program.

For example, Apple could:

  • Require customers to buy and replace whole assemblies rather than individual components, arguing that replacing an individual component is too complex for a self-service repair. This is true, to a point: few home repairers will be up for a bit of micro-soldering. But when it comes to the most common repair, the screen, there’s a lot of room for shenanigans. The company could insist that you buy a new $400 assembly, or spend less than $100 on the screen alone.
  • Require customers to promise only to ever use original, new Apple parts in their repairs, instead of perfectly good third-party spares or parts harvested from broken Apple devices. They can make this stick, too: Apple has repeatedly tried to field devices that perform a cryptographic handshake with new parts, which allows the company to lock out third-party parts and refurbished parts alike. The latest scandal on these lines was just a couple of weeks ago.
  • Use the existence of its Self-Service Repair program as a pretense to argue that the independent repair sector can be safely annihilated because Apple is run by a bunch of super-generous, big-hearted slobs who’d never abuse their power.

All of these suspicions are well-founded. Back in 2019, Apple launched an Independent Repair Program that offered certified indie shops access to parts and manuals. Any elation the right to repair side felt at this victory was short-lived, as the details of the plan came to light.

As Apple independent repair maven Louis Rossman explained in his vlog on the new announcement, the Independent Repair Program was a bit of theater that did virtually nothing to enhance independent repair. Shops that signed up for it found themselves forced to sign onerous NDAs and were subjected to impossible conditions. For example, IRP repair shops were banned from holding inventory of common parts like batteries or screens. Instead, they were required to gather invasive customer data on anyone who showed up looking for a repair, submit that data to Apple, wait for it to be processed and approved, and only then would Apple send the part. The customer, meanwhile, was deprived of their phone or laptop while they waited for this rigamarole to run its course.

The destiny of Apple’s Self-Service Repair program is ours to make. The pro-repair faction at Apple can make it a meaningful program that improves the lives of Apple customers, but only if it’s clear that anything less will ignite a firestorm of criticism that will discredit the company and cost it the ability to credibly argue for changes to whatever R2R legislation or regulation is coming.

If you want to know what a good Self-Service Repair program will look like, check out Ifixit’s checklist for a comprehensive look at what people need if they’re to be able to fix their own stuff:

(For more context, check out this excellent panel discussion between Ifixit’s Kyle Wiens, the Repair Coalition’s Gay Gordon-Byrne, and US PIRG’s Nathan Proctor on Motherboard’s Cyber podcast)

And remember, Apple may be the poster child for the war on repair, but it’s not the only villain in this fight. Everyone from Wahl (the shaver monopolist whose fortunes boomed on covid lockdown home haircuts, and who responded by phasing out the owner-sharpenable blade in favor of a self-destructing, spring-loaded assembly you have to mail to the factory for sharpening) to John Deere (whose labor concessions show that the company is becoming more biddable) are committed to gouging us on service, killing off the indie repair sector and the contribution it makes to the US GDP and American resilience and expanding the world’s stock of immortal e-waste by an order of magnitude.

We need both regulation and legislation to establish our right to repair as a matter of law, not corporate generosity. Microsoft folded on right to repair last month, and shareholder revolts are coming for every repair-hostile monopolist.

Never forget: the war on repair is really a war on the public interest. Companies have a strong preference for you to organize your affairs to maximize its shareholder benefit, even if that comes at your personal expense. Controlling repair lets monopolists create a kind of “Felony contempt of business-model,” where using a device the way you prefer is disreputable, dangerous, or even illegal.

So long as companies can continue to spin the lie that they’re doing this for our benefit, they’ll keep putting us at risk to maximize their profits. One particularly odious and reckless tactic is to disguise anti-user software updates as “security fixes.”

This is a tactic that was pioneered by HP, which uses fake security updates to trick printer owners into installing updates that can detect and reject the latest third-party ink cartridges. But it’s not just printers. Nordictrack sells treadmills and stationary bikes with large screens. They’d like you to pay extra for a subscription to exercise videos that run on those screens, but Nordictrack owners would rather watch Netflix dramas or sports matches while they work out. Nordictrack settled the matter in its favor with a fake security update that locked its customers out of control of their own screens.

This isn’t just a rip-off, it’s a dangerous one, and it puts us all at risk. We need people to apply security patches to their gadgets. Security is a process, not a product, and even the best-designed product will have lurking defects that will come to light after it is shipped. When a device is compromised, it can attack its owner (stealing data, probing home networks, and taking over other devices), but it can also be recruited into botnets, forming part of DDoS attacks or infecting other systems with ransomware.

Training users to reject or even block security updates is unconscionable, reckless conduct — behavior that puts corporate rent-seeking above the security and safety of everyone in the world who relies on secure digital systems.