Apple’s Cement Overshoes

80 pounds’ worth of malicious compliance in two Pelican cases.

A polluted, plastic-strewn ocean-bottom; prominent in the foreground is a smashed iPhone; overhead is Apple’s Think Different wordmark.
Conall/CC BY 2.0, modified

A Feature, Not a Bug

Apple CEO Tim Cook rang in 2019 with his annual shareholder letter, fulfilling his legal requirement to warn his investors about the risks the company saw on its horizon. One of Apple’s leading risks for 2019? Repair.

Apple makes a lot of money from the absence of repair. The transition from desktop PCs to laptops and then tablets and phones was a fantastic opportunity for hardware companies. A desktop PC might go obsolete, but it’s rare for your iMac to suffer a broken screen, fall into the toilet, get run over by a city bus, or fall down a sewer-grate.

The migration of Apple’s products — from our desktops to our backpacks to our pockets to our wrists and ears —meant that a predictable fraction of Apple’s gadgets would suffer physical misfortunes long before they became obsolete.

This was a crossroads for Apple. The company could have prioritized repair, building devices with “screws, not glue” and other repair-friendly measures. It could have nurtured an ecosystem of independent repair shops, places that could fix your smashed screens or dead batteries while you waited. That would have been in keeping with the company’s founding ethos: a whole generation of hardware hackers got their start when their parents brought home an Apple ][+, which came packaged with Steve Wozniak’s schematics for the machine.

The alternative was to treat drops, slips, cracks and battery depletion as features, not bugs. Apple could go to war against repair, and in so doing, it could capitalize on those mishaps by selling its customers new devices on a regular basis —and annihilate the market for used, refurbished systems.

That’s the path Apple took. The company embraced planned obsolescence, designing products with ever-shorter duty cycles. It recruited the US Customs Agency to block the importation of refurbished parts from overseas, falsely labeling these as “counterfeits,” even going so far as to etch minuscule Apple logos on parts that no one would ever see, as a means of invoking trademark law so it could have refurbished parts seized at the border.

Rather than embracing repair-friendly designs — designs that would allow for easy battery-swaps and screen replacements — the company designed devices filled with conflict minerals and heavy metals that were actively hostile to repair, virtually guaranteeing that these would end up as e-waste in an overseas landfill.

The company insisted that this was all an unfortunate side-effect of the imperative to make the slenderest, lightest products. This is demonstrably untrue: not only is it possible to design products that are easy to repair and maintain, but these products can also be made upgradeable, so customers can reap the benefits of innovation by replacing just the parts that have been superseded by newer, faster ones.

Apple’s war on repair has three fronts:

1. Documentation

In contrast with the Apple ][+, Apple hides its repair documentation for new devices, binding over its internal and authorized external repair technicians with nondisclosure agreements and treating its error codes and manuals as trade secrets.

2. Parts

Apple only sells parts to its authorized service depots. These depots are not allowed to keep any parts on hand. Rather, when you bring your Apple device in, they have to gather all of your personally identifying, sensitive information and send it to Apple in order to prove that they are buying parts for a real customer, and not to re-sell on the grey market. That means that any authorized independent repair requires a lengthy wait while the shop waits for Apple to approve the parts request.

Apple also goes to enormous lengths to keep refurbished parts out of the stream of commerce. The company’s deceptive “recycling program” is one of the worst in the world: they instruct their recycling partners to shred used hardware, so that working parts can’t be harvested from dead machines and used as donor parts for other systems. The most common pathway to Apple’s recycling program is through its trade-in program: if you bring your cracked screen or dead battery to Apple for an official repair, they’ll offer you a sweet deal on a trade-in to the next model up. Apple makes a profit on the sale, and they get to drop the old device in a shredder, which means that the next person with a broken gadget will have a harder time finding refurb parts to fix it with.

Despite this, some parts escape into the wild. Not only does Apple abuse trademark law and customs regulations to keep these parts from entering the high-income nations where its most profitable customers live, they also struck an exclusivity deal with Amazon that requires the company to block all used parts from Amazon Marketplace.

3. VIN-Locking

Like other repair-hostile companies, Apple tries to lock its parts to its devices; the idea is to use software locks that prevent a new part from being recognized by your gadget unless the device gets a cryptographically signed unlock code that proves that the repair was done by an official repair tech. This practice started in the automotive industry (VIN stands for “vehicle identification number”), but it has spread to tractors, hospital equipment, medical implants, and many other categories of goods.

Nature Finds a Way

Despite the efforts of a three trillion dollar company to goose its profits by forcing upgrades on its customers — at the expense of their wallets and the environment — an independent repair sector exists.

People like having a local fix-it shop! Community-based repair isn’t just convenient and environmentally responsible, it’s also a powerful engine for economic development. Landfilling a ton of e-waste creates a single job. Recycling that same e-waste creates 15 jobs.

Fixing that same ton of e-waste creates 200 local, high-paid jobs.

The repair heroes who keep our gadgets working have found workarounds for many of Apple’s dirty tricks. They find ways of evading customs controls, acquiring parts harvested by on-shore refurbishers, or they source interoperable third-party replacement parts.

A thriving repair sector — accounting for about 4% of US GDP — has figured out how to effect board-level repairs that Apple insists are impossible, and they enthusiastically trade expertise with one another. This creates another source of parts, allowing for subassembly-scale refurbishment.

Repairers rely on iFixit’s excellent, independent manuals to guide them through repairs, and buy independently produced tools that even have tips for unscrewing Apple’s notorious “pentalobe screw,” designed to thwart independent repair (at one point, Apple ordered its Genius Bar technicians to secretly remove and discard standard screws from any device they handled and replace them with pentalobe screws!).

Nixing the Fix

But guerrilla tactics only get us so far. Apple leads an anti-repair axis that includes multinational giants like Dyson, Wahl, John Deere, and the big automakers. An increasing proportion of the products we buy are designed to disintegrate after a few months or years and then be replaced.

The lengths that manufacturers go to in order to ensure that their products go to a landfill rather than being nursed into continuous use are wild. For example, the electric clipper monopolist Wahl has started boobytrapping the blades of its hair- and beard-trimmers, spring-loading them so they fly apart if you unscrew them to sharpen them. By design, these can’t be reassembled. You just have to buy a new clipper-head (protip: most Wahl clippers have a functionally equivalent model marketed for trimming animal hair, without the boobytrapped heads).

For years, repair activists, environmentalists and consumer rights groups have fought for Right to Repair legislation: laws that require companies to facilitate independent repair by supplying manuals, diagnostic codes and parts to independent repair technicians.

In 2018 — the year before Tim Cook warned his shareholders that their dividends were at risk because Apple customers were choosing to fix their gadgets, rather than replacing them — Apple led the anti-repair axis in fights against eighteen state Right to Repair bills. All eighteen bills died.

No company is more effective at fighting Right to Repair than Apple: in New Hampshire, they got a key lawmaker to abandon “Live Free or Die” in favor of a new, Apple-friendly motto: “cellphones are throwaways…just get a new one.

Many people have noticed that their parents used to keep refrigerators and washing machines in service for decades, but their own appliances all seem to end up beyond repair after a few short years. This is by design, and Apple led the appliance manufacturers to victory in killing Ohio’s Right to Repair bill, then they took the fight to Nebraska, where they helped kill farmers’ dreams of fixing their own tractors (they also convinced Ontario’s Ford “open for business” government to kill a repair bill, giving countless small businesses the shaft so that a tax-evading multinational headquartered in Cupertino, California could make more money off the people of Ontario).

But despite this unbroken string of victories against repair, and despite the powerful alliance of the world’s largest corporations, Right to Repair refused to die. In 2018, the US Copyright Office held hearings on exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that would make it legal for device owners to break VIN-locks.

There were some fascinating submissions in this proceeding, including three short science fiction stories about repair and jailbreaking, by John Scalzi, Mur Lafferty, and me.

That proceeding led to the Federal Trade Commission taking up the issue of repair kicking off a two-year “Nixing the Fix” investigation that found that repair was safe, environmentally sound, and good for America.

The FTC did not come to this conclusion lightly. They had to weigh Apple’s terrifying FUD about repair against rival claims from everyday Americans, like the Michigan teen who became the de-facto leader of the state’s Right to Repair movement after teaching himself to fix his classmates’ phone screens.

Apple invented the anti-repair playbook that other corporations rolled out. Apple weaponized security concerns as a means of fighting repair, arguing that letting independent repair shops replace your phone’s battery meant that users’ phones would explode and take their faces off. Apple had a strong interest in controlling battery replacements: the company had to pay $113m to settle the Batterygate scandal, after it was revealed that the company had secretly throttled older iPhones after their batteries started to lose their charges.

Of course, exploding batteries aren’t the main concern when it comes to device security — we’re justifiably far more concerned about the information security of our devices. Apple claims that device security is incompatible with independent repair, and lawmakers, lacking expertise on the subject, are inclined to take them at their world.

Thankfully, the nonprofit group Securepairs has assembled some of the world’s top security experts to refute these claims. Apple does a very good job with device security — except when they don’t (like the tech design decision that makes it possible to hack an iPhone even when it’s switched off). Without third-party scrutiny — and repair — of Apple’s devices, you’re a prisoner to Apple’s blind spots and errors.

Plan B: Repairwashing

Eventually, it became clear to Apple and other anti-repair companies that they were going to lose the repair wars some day — it was a matter of when, not if. Apple needed a backup plan.

They needed to make it look like they were taking steps to allow managed, safe repairs, while doing nothing of the sort. They needed to invent repairwashing.

First came 2019’s certified independent repair program, which allowed independent shops to fix iPhones with Apple’s blessing. This program was designed to be as cumbersome and useless as possible. Participating repair shops were banned from repairing Apple devices, beyond the handful that Apple permitted, which meant that repair shops that signed up for the program had to reduce the range of repairs they offered.

As I explained earlier, program participants were not given a supply of parts so they could do on-the-spot repairs. Rather, they had to collect invasive, sensitive data on each repair customer, submit it to Apple with an application for parts, and then wait for the application to be approved and the parts to be shipped before they could do the fix. Partners were banned from buying compatible replacement parts or refurbished parts, and were subject to nondisclosure agreements and random audits.

Creating this useless authorized repair program bought Apple some time. When state and federal lawmakers mooted new repair laws, Apple could confuse them by pointing to this program and claiming that it made repair laws redundant and unnecessary (“See, the market is working! No need for government interference here!”).

But eventually, repair advocates would explain the glaring deficits with Apple’s program to a critical mass of lawmakers and Apple’s ability to force you to upgrade your phone every 18 months and send your old one to a landfill would be in danger again.

This got even scarier for Apple after Biden’s executive order on Right to Repair came out last summer. Apple needed a Plan C.

Plan C: Enter the Pelican Cases

A few months after the Right to Repair executive order, Apple announced a “home repair program,” that would offer “parts, tools and manuals” to Apple device owners wanting to fix their phones.

At the time, those of us in the repair community were pretty sure this would turn out to have some gotchas. We speculated about the ways that Apple could create a program that no one would ever use. For example, what if the smallest “part” Apple would sell you was a giant assembly that cost so much it would make more sense to replace your phone.

We got pretty creative back then, trying to game out how Apple would sabotage home repair.

We were not nearly creative enough.

At Apple, they Think Different, and the home-repair fuckery they conceived of is so unbelievably, comically awful that I have to admit some grudging admiration for their ingenuity.

This week, The Verge’s Sean Hollister got to try out Apple’s home repair program. The company shipped him 79 pounds’ worth of gear, in two ruggedized Pelican cases. Included in the kit: “an industrial-grade heat station that looks like a piece of lab equipment,” to loosen the glue that holds the phone together (recall Apple’s aversion to “screws, not glue”).

For all the gear Hollister got from Apple, following the official Apple manual and using official Apple tools was much harder than fixing your phone with an equivalent set of tools, parts and manuals from iFixit.

For example, that “industrial-grade heat station” didn’t actually work. Hollister had to apply it twice, and use a hidden suction-increasing knob to get his phone case to separate. Once it did, he was left with goopy, melted glue that was supposed to come away with tweezers (not supplied in the 79 pound repair kit!). It didn’t.

In fact, nearly every part of Apple’s official repair process was worse than the iFixit equivalent. The useless battery-seating press kept knocking the battery out of alignment, and the fancy torx drivers were choresome to use. All of this compounded Apple’s repair-hostile design: swapping the battery requires three different screwdriver bits, removing the speaker, and managing a cluster of hidden fasteners that hold down the fiddly ribbon cables. Apple’s official tools don’t have (industry standard) magnetic tips, so Hollister spent a lot of time chasing minuscule pieces of metal around his workbench.

Eventually, Hollister got his phone back together, and then discovered that the battery came VIN-locked and his phone wouldn’t recognize it!

To complete the repair, he had to phone (yes, telephone, with his voicebox, like some kind of caveman!) a third-party logistics company, connect his phone to a laptop over wifi, and reboot it so the logistics tech could take over his phone remotely, validate the repair, and unlock the battery.

Compare this with iFixit’s offerings: iPhone battery toolkits cost $25–$50, including a spare battery.

The accompanying videos and manuals lay out far simpler mechanisms for swapping your battery. You don’t need an industrial-grade heating unit to melt the glue: they tell you how to use a hair-dryer, heat-gun, or a $20 gel-filled, microwavable iOpener to soften the glue. The whole kit weighs just a few pounds, including packaging.

Compare this with the deal that Apple gave Hollister: $69 for a new battery, a $1,200 credit-card hold as security for 79 pounds’ worth of tools, $49 in rental charges for those tools, and the pleasure of hauling two Pelican cases’ worth of tools to and from a shipping depot.

Hollister points out that none of this makes any economic sense. Not only does this cost far more than an iFixit repair, there’s also the $1,200 credit-card lockup. Apple does pick up round-trip shipping on those two Pelican cases, which means they’re losing money on the deal, too — The Verge was quoted $200 to ship those cases in each direction.

Hollister conclude that the “program is the perfect way to make it look like the company supports right-to-repair policies without actually encouraging them at all. Apple can say it’s giving consumers access to everything, even the same tools its technicians use, while scaring them away with high prices, complexity, and the risk of losing a $1,200 deposit. This way, Apple gets credit for walking you through an 80-page repair, instead of building phones where — say — you don’t need to remove the phone’s most delicate components and two different types of security screws just to replace a battery.”

He’s right. This is just the latest installment in Apple’s long-running repairwashing efforts, a way to tell law-makers that Apple encourages repair, but its customers simply prefer to send their old phones to landfill and buy shiny new ones, loaded with heavy metals and conflict minerals.

It’s true that many of us would be daunted by the prospect of swapping our batteries. As Hollister says, Apple has engineered their phones so that the most common repair requires an 80-page manual. But many of us are comfortable bringing our devices to our neighborhood repair shops, where our neighbors enjoy good wages while diverting tons of e-waste from landfills and saving us all money by keeping our gadgets going.

The independent repair sector and the people who rely on it aren’t going away. The fiction of repairwashing grows thinner by the day.