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Apple's limited repair commitments are frustrating independent repairers

SOPA Images via Getty Images

Apple earned plaudits for making the iPhone 14 more repairable compared to its predecessors, but the question of who can make those repairs remains. It appears the company has added an additional, seemingly-unnecessary layer of friction to the process of replacing a broken display. Much like in 2019, even genuine Apple screens are causing repaired iPhones to malfunction. Sources within the third-party repair community, who have asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, say that while tearing an iPhone 14 may be easier, getting it to work properly after is considerably harder.

Our sources say the new issue centers on the iPhone 14’s Always-On Display (AOD), which uses the phone’s two Ambient Light Sensors (ALS) to calibrate display brightness. In order to conserve battery life, when at night or when the phone is in your pocket, the display will shut down, leveraging the automatic brightness. If your display breaks, and you don’t use an Apple-authorized service center to replace it, however, the ALS shuts down, leaving the screen permanently black unless you can remember the position of the slider, and then you’ll be stuck manually adjusting your brightness.

(The Ambient Light Sensor has been an issue with previous iPhone releases, down to where its controller was sited. On the iPhone 12, for instance, it was mounted on a sensor flex itself that leant itself to mechanical failure. On the 13, it was moved to a new component cluster, reducing the risk of it breaking unexpectedly. Our source says that the iPhone 14’s sensor is in a similar place, and so any failure must be a software-related issue.)

YouTuber Hugh Jefferys posted a video about the problem, swapping the logic board between two brand new iPhones (both for the 14 and 14 Pro). Despite the fact that every component is new and Apple-made, the phones erupted into a chorus of error messages and broken features. FaceID, Battery Health, True Tone and Auto Brightness, as well as the forward-facing cameras are all disabled. When Jeffreys swapped them back, the problems persisted, and the phones were only “fixed” after he had downgraded to iOS 16.0.

The cause of this failure is Apple’s policy of “Parts Pairing,” tying individual components to the phones that carry them. A display – a commonly broken part – will have a unique ID logged in its hardware that the iPhone checks for whenever it boots. As far as the phone is concerned, it will only work properly if it has its “own” display attached, and if it’s not detected, it won’t work. Users will instead see a bunch of error messages urging them to go to their local Apple support technician. These messages will, eventually, stop, but your device will be marked as hosting unauthorized components.

The only way to prevent this is for an Apple-authorized technician to manually sanction the pairing with an in-house software tool. Our source said that this process requires a technician connecting to Apple’s private network over the internet, a process that is kept “under lock and key” by the company. Until the iPhone 13, there was a workaround for this with third-party repair stores using custom EEPROM programmers. These devices would read the part ID code from the paired display and write it to its replacement, which would often be a refurbished, genuine Apple-made display. Unfortunately, while this worked on previous iPhones, it does not remedy the issues for the iPhone 14.

The result of this is that repair stores outside of Apple’s own network will soon be left unable to make repairs on any new iPhones. The costs of joining Apple’s network, however, are high enough that many businesses have had second thoughts about doing so. “The Independent Repair Programme (IRP) is not profitable enough, as an independent repairer, to maintain as a retail operation” said one individual who asked not to be named.

Apple has been historically resistant to the idea that users should be able to fix their own gear. It has backed anti-Right to Repair groups and tries to keep all repairs within its own service process. That has led to situations where Apple grossly overcharged for basic repairs that did not require a machine to be sent away to be serviced. The most infamous example, as reported by CBC, was when a Genius Bar quoted $1,200 to make a fix a third-party store charged $75 for.

Apple withholds repair manuals and spare parts from third-party stores, despite the volume of iPhones that require basic fixes, like display and battery replacements. Instead, the only non-Apple outfits that can fix iPhones are Authorized Service Providers (ASPs) where Apple can exert some control. The company’s critics say boxing out third parties who can make simple repairs and forcing people back to the Genius Bar helps turn a tidy profit. Apple denies this, and told the US Antitrust subcommittee that in 2019, since 2009, “the costs of providing repair services has exceeded the revenue generated by repairs.” Although Apple did not explain if that constitutes the whole of its repair operations, or just those made under warranty.

But the company, through a combination of regulator and activist pressure, has been forced to loosen its grip on repairs. In 2019, it said it would allow third-party repair stores to become “verified,” enabling it to receive the same tools, parts and manuals as its ASPs. The process subsequently expanded this program to include Mac repair as well as for iPhones (and iPads). And, on November 17th, 2021, the company announced a self-service repair program where it would make tools, parts and manuals available to users.

This process, however, as detailed in depth by The Verge, revealed that enabling a user to fix their own iPhone display on Apple’s terms wasn’t that easy. The company handed over 79 pounds of tools, including a hot plate to melt the glue holding the display in place. If that wasn’t bad enough, the repair isn’t validated until the iPhone is connected to Apple’s own service team, which can then set the new part as legitimate. And in order to do it, a user has to lay down a deposit of $1,200 to ensure they return the tools within seven days.

The end result of this is that consumers have to pay a significantly higher price to keep their iPhone running than they should, or could. In one example, a third-party store that used genuine Apple displays charged around £140 ($157) to repair an iPhone 11 display, whereas that same repair at an Apple-authorized store would cost closer to £220 ($247). Compare that to aftermarket display replacements, made by third-party companies, which are priced at £95 ($106).

Jason Eccles is General Manager of SimplyFixIt, a chain of independent repair stores across Scotland. “The idea that someone can buy a device outright, but the manufacturer can still control the functionality of it for years to come is mind-blowing,” he said. “It’s frustrating for us, because we want to offer the best possible repair, but Apple appears to have arbitrary rules around what we can do, sometimes even creating new issues with iOS updates.” Eccles does not have an issue with iOS devices knowing that it was repaired with aftermarket parts, however. “Consumers getting relevant information in iOS that a component has been replaced is a good thing, but I think it’s difficult to say that reducing the functionality of the phone, even if we use genuine parts, is good for customers.”

Eccles added that it’s important to repair existing equipment from a sustainability standpoint as much as anything else. “We still regularly repair MacBooks and iMacs that are ten years old,” he said, “it shows plenty of Apple devices are out there that would be perfectly usable after a little repair.” Not to mention that responsible independent repair technicians should be welcomed by Apple with open arms. “If everyone had to pay £349 ($403) for a new screen, there would be a lot more people switching to Android for their next phone. Apple might not want to admit it, but we’re helping people stay in their ecosystem.

iFixit has tested and confirmed the issue to Engadget, saying that there is an issue related to the always-on display. Liz Chamberlain, iFixit Director of Sustainability, said that the practice of using software locks is an “insidious threat to repair as we know it.” And that this new issue is a greater demonstration of the fact that “repairability requires the ability to access software locks, not just hardware.” She added that, either by accident or intention, Apple has “proved [it] can’t be trusted with a parts pairing kill switch.” And that unless lawmakers step in to ensure there is a federally protected right to repair, there’s the possibility that Apple could “disable all phones that have undergone independent repair.”

Engadget contacted Apple for a comment on the story but none was made available by the time of publication.

If there’s a hope, it’s that pushes for Right to Repair legislation on both sides of the Atlantic make strong progress. Earlier this year, President Biden said it was a common problem that a person owns a product, but doesn’t “have the freedom to choose how or where to repair [it.]” And the FTC has recently moved to enforce legislation that sees major manufacturers – including Harley Davidson – from using warranty provisions to prevent owners seeking independent repair for their products.

And the EU, currently taking the lead in many elements of tech regulation, is also looking at laying down better right to repair provisions. Its “Ecodesign” initiative is in its infancy right now, but will focus on producing rules that will ensure devices sold there are more repairable. One of the key clauses in its earliest draft is to provide “appropriate information for users, repairers and recyclers” (Para 4). And that these requirements are designed to enable “repair operations by end-users,” (Para 15), something Apple allows, but doesn’t make easy. We can only hope, that when these rules are agreed, that the balance of power is swung back towards user repair.