Protocol | Policy

Sometimes it just doesn’t work: Why Apple is finally letting its customers fix their iPhones

Apple was the right-to-repair movement's biggest opponent. Facing regulatory pressure, it seems it's finally listening.

An Apple logo on a grid

Until recently, consumers could face tall obstacles when seeking outside repair help, let alone trying to fix things themselves. Big Tech device-makers, particularly Apple, wanted to keep it that way.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

If your iPhone stops working, what do you do? Usually, you take it to the Apple Store, where an Apple Genius Bar employee can assist you. But maybe the repair is too pricy, or you don't live near an Apple Store. Maybe your local repair technician offers a significant discount. Until recently, consumers could face tall obstacles when seeking outside repair help, let alone trying to fix things themselves. Big Tech device-makers, particularly Apple, spent a fair amount of energy keeping it that way, limiting access to necessary parts and device manuals that would allow consumers to pay someone else for a fix and extend the life of their hardware.

But Wednesday, Apple changed its tune: The company will allow users to fix their own iPhones starting in early 2022. The program will start in the U.S. with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, but is expected to expand to include M1 Macs and other countries throughout the year. To access parts, users will first have to read Apple's Repair Manual. Then they can place an order for the required tools through Apple's Self Service Repair Online Store.

Apple did not immediately respond to comment.

This is a dramatic reversal of a longtime policy for Apple, which has historically been a formidable opponent to right-to-repair. Apple often claims that granting third parties access to Apple's repair tools could compromise consumer safety. The company, which is known for quiet defensive plays in Washington and state capitals, also backs trade groups such as TechNet, which has been lobbying against right-to-repair legislation in multiple states.

The right-to-repair movement has been swiftly gaining momentum, however, at both the state and federal levels. After a FTC report finding "scant evidence" justifying repair restrictions, the commission voted in July to fight these restrictions in a display of bipartisanship inside an agency facing partisan divisions and gridlock. Increased access to third-party repair showed up as part of President Biden's July executive order on tech and competition and New York's State Senate this year passed a right-to-repair act. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak publicly backed the movement.

For right-to-repair activists, the news is both shocking and exciting. "This has been an all-out war we've engaged in for over 18 years with Apple," said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which helps Americans repair devices. "It's such a huge flip." There had been signs Apple might acquiesce, though. Earlier in November, for example, iFixit published its discovery that Apple disabled Face ID on iPhone 13s with independently repaired screens. Apple said five days later it would update the software that disabled Face ID.

Apple also expanded access to Apple parts in 2019 with the launch of its Independent Repair Provider program. Before that, independent technicians had to pay to become "authorized service providers" and receive genuine Apple parts. Wednesday's move is an even bigger deal, because it opens up repair information to the general public.

As to why Apple may have reversed course, Wiens suggests Apple moved after pressure from a growing body of legislation. Twenty seven different states have introduced right-to-repair bills, all based on the Repair Association's legislative template. "They're staring down a double-barrel," Wiens said. "If right-to-repair passed, they would have been required to do this anyway. They're not going above and beyond what the proposed laws say."

The FTC's rare display of unanimity in pushing back against device-makers on the issue may also have suggested to Apple that it wouldn't escape the issue at the federal level either, even when Republicans eventually retake power at the agency under a future administration.

Apple said the self-service program is intended for "individual technicians with the knowledge and experience to repair electronic devices," not just casual users. Wiens takes issue with this framing, as he thinks "if you design a product right, anybody should be able to fix it." In his view, if anybody from a young tech nerd to a clueless grandma can fix your product, you're doing it right.

Wiens started iFixit with the belief that repair manuals shouldn't be secret — they should be a fundamental human right. "If we're going to put these products out in the world and go through the effort of manufacturing them, with global warming and CO2 emissions, we need to have a plan for making these things stand the test of time," Wiens said.

It's unclear whether Apple's announcement will move the needle for other companies, but it certainly ramps up the pressure. Microsoft has already made some overtures, caving to shareholder requests in October to make its devices more repair-friendly. The movement hasn't fully taken hold of Big Tech yet, but if any of the current legislation passes, companies will be forced to listen.

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