What Apple Got Wrong with Right to Repair
It's all about Right to Salvage
I love #RightToRepair, but even when a company commits, they might do it in the most vendor locked-in way possible. This is why I prefer talking about #RightToSalvage, which is better for the devices, users, and the environment. Apple, I'm looking at you.
The following is my script from the video titled ‘What Apple Got Wrong with Right to Repair’
Not everyone is perfect, like my cat can be when she's not scratching the furniture, but also we're not made out of money. As a result, more and more people prefer to repair broken things than simply replace them - if you can double the life out of it and it works perfectly fine with a small investment, then why not? Well the big companies would prefer you bought new, rather than repaired - spending a thousand dollars on a smartphone every year sounds a very good deal to them.
While various locations have mandates about warranty and repairability, it isn't even, or in some locations repairability doesn't exist, and it's been up to lawmakers and individuals to force a right to repair on the equipment. One of the biggest hold outs to this is Apple, who last year announced that they are now letting third party repair shops eke out more life from everyone's apple devices. But it comes at a cost.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the right to repair movement. The concept of using any compatible hardware to fix your expensive gadget has applied to almost everything mechanical or electrical over the centuries – if your weaving machine needs a new part, either make a new one or find a seller - there’s no need to go to the manufacturer. However, the pivot from mechanical to electrical has put that into disarray.
As compute power has increased, the ability for hardware manufacturers to lock-in components to your expensive gadget has been easier than ever. Every component inside, every small bit of silicon, can transmit encrypted data to each other for fractions of your preferred energy units, and in record time. This allows there to be hardware handshakes, where firmware and special codes are used, meaning that specific hardware can only talk to pre-verified hardware. It’s a special club and you need to know the special handshake or signal to get into the VIP area. Gone are the days when the manufacturer would put a circuit diagram on the inside of the case.
Of course, Apple is often heralded as the peak instigator when it comes to this “lock-in” syndrome. Over the years, it has unified its supply chain under its brand, or forced collaborators to design specific circuits to enable this security. If you want to replace something as innocuous as a broken screen, the new one from an unauthorized repair center doesn’t know the special knock, and then the vendor will try and upsell you a new device. Or that’s how the thinking goes.
Of course, Apple is not alone. John Deere is held aloft when it comes to farming equipment in a similar fashion – there are so many security gates in the software to control your new vehicle that replacing a simple and readily available part might confuse the electronic control unit because it doesn’t have that unique chip in it.
The companies who do this have some valid reasons, some of which you may or may not agree with.
First usually revolves around warranty – using an unauthorized repair center might remove your warranty, although a number of locations have laws stating that warranty stays intact regardless. But where this argument falls apart is repairing the device outside the warranty – what use are the protections then?
Here we have point two, user experience. If a vendor creates a gadget with a particular use case in mind, a third-party repair has the potential to create further issues, according to these companies. Or alternatively, a repair could solve a long-standing issue that the manufacturer refuses to fix. Either way, the manufacturer wants to maintain your experience within its parameters, and disabling third-party repair helps keep the experience in a known bracket, even if the manufacturer doesn’t care.
The third, which is perhaps one with more legal standing, is intellectual property. If a company creates a solution that, for example, uses a special chip that halves display power, then the manufacturer may not want that chip sold to its competitors, or be reverse engineered by them. In order to maintain a market advantage in that segment, there has to be some protection. Critics will argue that this is what patents are for, and it’s the consumers who lose out if this is the main argument.
I won’t delve much deeper into this topic, there are plenty of worthy individuals you should follow to get more insight into the matter. Louis Rossmann, a famous repair dude, has created entities designed to lobby the US government on this matter, and travels to hearings to talk about why right to repair matters.
So what is right to repair? At a super-high level, it’s the ability to repair your components regardless of ownership, age, and the user gets to choose who does that repair, whether it’s the manufacturer, an authorized repair entity, or Dave at the end of your street. This involves YOUR rights to repair WHATEVER you own HOWEVER you want. The right to repair movement is all about getting companies like Apple and like John Deere to stop locking their hardware, to share schematics, and allow independent repair.
What Apple is Doing
I bring all this up because recently Apple announced it was moving in a positive direction in this manner. Some people have considered it the start of something good, others are criticizing it for being the _absolute_ bare minimum. I’m more of the latter, and I’m here to explain why.
Apple’s original policy was that any device needs to be repaired by an authorized technician. In reality, a lot of the time devices are not repaired on site, and sent away, and Apple might provide you with a new/refurbished device to replace it – hopefully all your data is saved, but that’s never a guarantee – assuming they even try.
Apple’s policy is that now individuals can get their Apple device repaired by anyone. But, that anyone has to sign up to Apple’s online webstore, and purchase replacement components from Apple for those repairs. Because Apple still has the security measures in place, the repairer must upload the right serial numbers such that the chips on order can be pre-programmed with the right codes and handshakes to be accepted into the system. If this goes how Apple currently operates its authorized repair centers, then the repairer can pay for the replacement component, and sending the broken one back can get them credit towards future purchases.
Apple is going to start small, working within the US, with only a few of the major components on offer. Over the next few years, this will likely expand to control silicon, more specialized components like modems and haptic engines, and also go outside of the US. This website is now live, at SelfServiceRepair.com.
If you saw the website without knowing it was an apple website, you wouldn’t guess that this is the center for third party apple repair hardware. Truth be told, Apple has outsourced it to a company called SPOT, or Service Parts or Tools Inc, to create this store and make the parts and tools available. It appears that Apple doesn’t want its branding or its logo anywhere near this side of the business, and that’s probably not a coincidence.
Naturally all of these components have the Apple Tax built in, and in some quarters, Apple is being criticized for making the cost of the hardware equal to what it would cost in the regular stores. The only difference here is that the third-party repairer now has to diagnose the issue, to which Apple has said that it would be offering some level of test equipment and schematics to these new third-party repairers. Here we are, several months after the scheme started, and those diagnostic tools are finally being shipped out.
But we can see with those prices. Take the Camera for the iPhone 12 – one hundred and eleven dollars and seventy five cents. That is reduced down to fifty nine dollars after credit, which then is reduced further when the defective part is returned to Apple within 18 days. Of course as an end user, you’ll be paying the technician a markup on these prices and for their time. Oh, and before the technician can even order the parts, they need your phones unique ID called the IMEI, so they can program all these chips in advance before they send them to you.
So it’s great – you can now get your phone repaired by who you want, right? Well, unless you want your Macbook repaired, that might be coming. But that’s ultimately what right to repair is all about? In its loosest possible terms, yes. However Apple is still keeping it all within its walled garden – programmed chips from only one retailer at high costs. Doesn’t sound very open, does it?
Right to Salvage
Here is where I’m going to use the term ‘right to salvage’. In my mind it’s within the standard right to repair context, but it clarifies the part of right to repair that I think matters most.
In Apple’s situation right now, and what the company has committed to, every component that is being replaced has to be replaced with a new one direct from Apple. If a repairer has a device that is dead but has a working screen, and another device that just has a broken screen, the screen can’t be transplanted from the dead device into the repairable device. The repairer _has_ to buy a new screen from Apple, and it has to be reprogrammed or remotely activated.
The right to salvage is the ability to transplant hardware between devices of the same design. Apple’s new policy ignores this completely. There’s no way for a repairer to break that barrier (not without some serious work at least), so even when a repair center has 50+ devices is a state of repair, they can’t combine components to create working machines. Apple doesn’t allow that.
Alternatively, if a repairer has a lot of dead machines with salvageable components, there could be potential to set up a store front to sell them. Apple doesn’t allow that. Once the chip or part has a serial ID locked into it, there’s no way to use it elsewhere. You’d have to get it reprogrammed, which means sending it back to Apple, and getting a new one. If you could salvage a part, Apple is out of that loop financially.
This also ties into global commitments to be carbon neutral, or ‘green’. It’s a good goal, but it can’t simply be the act of offsetting carbon emissions by paying money. At some level it has to be the raw actions of what is actually happening, and Apple ignoring the right to salvage under its guise of right to repair could be construed as one of the more negative examples of this. If a repair shop has a chip in house to repair their clients machine, they should be able to use it – not to ship the part 2000+ miles and wait for a brand new replacement that has come from Asia.
So we come to the crux of the issue: should we be praising Apple for a step in the right direction towards right to repair, or should we be punishing Apple for not going far enough. Doing the bare minimum is commendable, but it is only ever the first step. The company has received a lot of positive press for this first step, however conveniently ignoring the fact that hardware can’t be salvaged is a massive oversight by the press, and a clever omission by Apple to stay in the financial loop.
This video might not come across as positive for Apple if there are any folks there that watch this. Identifying omissions and loopholes is usually something that companies don’t like. This isn’t meant to be an attack in any way, but more a call to action.
Apple: allow the right to salvage.
Expand your green credentials. I know in the past there’s been an impetus to get people to upgrade – it makes more money at the end of the day. But you’ve spent that money, billions of it every year, on R&D. Customers want a great device, but they also want to repair what they have without having to ship it around the world. That should be the point that matters.