Increasingly, it seems, our gadgets are not wholly owned by us—that when some component breaks, we are at the mercy of the giant companies that charge us out the ears for repair parts and services. One of the tech industry’s favorite lines of defense with respect to upholding repair monopolies is “safety,” but advocates have long challenged the extent to which this claim may be overblown and self-interested.
Apple has positioned itself as one such company pushing back on a movement for the right to repair our stuff, going so far as to implement barriers to unauthorized third-party repairs. In the latest example, iFixit reported last week on a “dormant software lock” on newer iPhones that seemingly attempts to thwart third-party battery repairs not authorized by Apple by obscuring information about battery health and displaying an on-screen “service” message—even when the battery is brand new or one of Apple’s own. (According to TheArtofRepair, which first surfaced the issue on YouTube, the lock affects the iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max.)
What this means, iFixit reported, is that an Authorized Service Provider or Apple itself must authenticate the battery to the phone—everything reportedly still works as intended, but you’ll get that service message and know less about your battery’s health. It also means that even if an individual or third-party repair outfit has the know-how to fix a newer iPhone themselves, Apple is effectively forcing repairs to be done on its own terms if the user wants their device to work without anything weird happening.
In other words, the whole thing is bullshit. The battery lock doesn’t seem to make doing your own repair any safer—in fact, one could argue that obscuring vital battery-health information increases risks for users who skip Apple’s repair ecosystem. You can reportedly still swap in a new iPhone battery and have the phone work, but you’re going to have to contend with a disconcerting service message that is likely enough to dissuade a lot of people from fixing their phones themselves. And by doing this, Apple is arguably pushing more people toward costly repairs and putting an undue burden on their time by manipulating them into going to an “authorized” repair location.
Seemingly anticipating this criticism, Apple said in a June press release announcing a new repair partnership with Best Buy that, in addition to its hundreds of Apple stores, it has more than 1,800 authorized third-party service providers in the U.S., “meaning eight out of ten Apple customers will be within 20 minutes of an authorized service provider,” according to the company’s calculation. To put that in perspective, there are currently more than 266,000 auto repair shops in the U.S., according to market research firm IBISWorld—an indication of what the gadget repair market could eventually look like without a stranglehold from Apple and other companies.
In that same June announcement, Tara Bunch, Apple’s vice president of AppleCare, said in a statement that when “a customer ever needs to repair their products, we want them to feel confident those repairs are done safely and correctly.”
But consumers should be allowed to decide on what terms they want to repair their gadgets, just as they would repair their car or lawnmower. And by stripping consumers of their ability to fully choose, Apple is—as is the case with many other tech giants—taking on the role of a “benevolent monopoly,” says Nathan Proctor, who leads the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Right to Repair campaign.
“They wouldn’t engineer their products this way, with a serial number on every part that talks to the computer in the phone, if they didn’t plan on using that engineering capacity for their own benefit,” Proctor tells Gizmodo by phone. “There’s a specific reason they engineered it that way. And if the application is to force repair through their authorized shops, then they’ve already engineered the monopoly.”
Apple is one of a number of tech companies with skin in this anti-right-to-repair game. Microsoft and John Deere are also often named as culprits. The inability for consumers to easily fix their own stuff across industries can have devastating effects on people’s livelihood, which is one of the reasons right to repair in the agriculture and farming sector has become a talking point for major presidential candidates including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Locking a phone to its battery is indicative of Apple’s control over parts and service. But right-to-repair advocates argue that hindering consumers’ ability to choose what to do with their own products presents myriad problems, the most glaring of which being that tech companies can continue price-gouging for services and repairs that might be offered at a lower cost by an independent repair outfit (or, again, by doing the repair yourself).
Replacement screens, for example, can run hundreds of dollars per job when performed by Apple. An iPhone X out-of-warranty replacement screen will put you out $279 at Apple’s price. But you can purchase all the tools to fix it yourself for about $155 from iFixit. (iFixit estimates the repair takes between one to two hours to complete.) An out-of-warranty iPhone X battery will run you $69 from Apple, but iFixit charges $45 for a replacement kit.
No one expects Apple to go out of its way to actively encourage its customers to seek repairs from parties other than itself—it’s a business, after all. But Apple does appear to be aggressively taking unnecessary measures to thwart unauthorized repairs, such as by using specialized parts and locking batteries to newer models of iPhone. And again, there’s an argument to be made that cutting off a consumer’s ability to access information about the health of the battery in their device—even if it’s one of Apple’s own—presents its own safety issues.
Proctor argues that Apple is essentially claiming that it wants “to ensure that our customers are having a great experience by taking their agency away from them.” He acknowledges that people or repair shops who are performing repairs absolutely need to know what they’re doing, but he likened phone repairs to those of cars. If we can be trusted to repair our own vehicles, then consumers should be able to have the same choice to fix their electronics.
To be clear, and to Proctor’s own point, lithium-ion batteries can, in fact, be dangerous if mishandled—as has been reported by this very publication and many others. (iFixit includes a warning about handling lithium-ion batteries on its website and includes an information section for both handling and disposing of them.) And no one is arguing that Apple doesn’t care about user safety—surely it does—but Apple’s “safety” argument obscures the fact that the company has actively fought against right to repair for years, and to its own benefit.
Apple declined multiple requests to comment prior to publication.
Proctor further argues that limiting consumer repair access can potentially backfire in situations like Batterygate, Apple’s controversial processor-throttling dust-up to which the company responded by offering discounted, $29 replacement battery program for affected phones. But due to a shortage of supply, some iPhone owners were forced to wait months for replacement batteries. (During the Batterygate shortage, iFixit offered replacement kits for roughly the same discounted price.)
Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, argues this same point, telling Gizmodo by email that consumers “haven’t forgotten Error 53, nor BatteryGate, nor the butterfly keyboard mess and they are already on alert for more anti-consumer moves.” (Apple apologized for the Error 53 bricked-iPhone fiasco tied to unauthorized repairs on home buttons, as well as for continued issues with its faulty butterfly keyboard.)
Gordon-Byrne further notes that the problem with some of Apple’s messaging around repairs is that we as the owners of our products are supposed to have control over our own enjoyment of them. She adds: “That’s why you buy things and not rent them.”
Update 12:47 p.m. ET, August 14: We made Apple aware of our plans to cover this controversy on Monday afternoon and provided the company multiple opportunities to comment prior to publication. Approximately two hours after publication of this article, Apple provided the following comment, which, alongside reiterating the company’s talking points on this issue, confirms that iPhones subject to the battery lock are still operable if a battery is installed by an unauthorized repairer:
“We take the safety of our customers very seriously and want to make sure any battery replacement is done properly. There are now over 1,800 Apple authorized service providers across the US so our customers have even more convenient access to quality repairs. Last year we introduced a new feature to notify customers if we were unable to verify that the battery was genuine and installed by a certified technician following Apple repair processes. This information is there to help protect our customers from damaged, poor quality, or used batteries which can lead to safety or performance issues. This notification does not impact the customer’s ability to use the phone after an unauthorized repair.”