IEEE Spectrum recently spoke with Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, which provides repair parts and guidance for Apple devices among others, about Apple’s announcement last month that it would provide users with options to repair their devises themselves.
Spectrum: Take a moment to describe the situation before a couple of weeks ago, when Apple announced a change of policy on self-repair. Suppose I bought a new Apple phone and I sat on it and cracked the screen and decided I wanted to repair it. What could I do?
Wiens: Apple basically provided no option for that. They've gone out of their way to prevent people from doing that kind of repair. So your option is to go to a third party—an organization, like iFixit. We've been working in spite of Apple. Apple's known for going after independent parts companies for trademark violations and that kind of thing. Apple did not make any service information available. They designed the product to be glued together, so it's hard to work on. They don't sell parts. That's been the state of things.
But the only option wasn’t just a factory repair—to take it back to the Apple Store. At least they seem to be saying that they supplied independent repair shops. Was that not true before?
Yes, about a year ago Apple launched a program that they call IRP and for Independent Repair Provider program. It is a mechanism for local shops to get access to Apple parts and tools. But there are many catches. The biggest catch is that the contract you have to sign requires you to turn your customer data over the Apple. Most shops that we know of have not been willing to sign that: If you do, you sign away your soul.
Then on November 17th, Apple makes an announcement. What did they say? And did this come as a surprise?
It was definitely a surprise. They said that they are going to start making information and parts available directly to consumers to be able to fix their own device, starting with the iPhone 12 and 13 and then potentially expanding to other devices in the future. It hasn't launched yet. They said it's going to start early next year. This is a big change: Apple has never posted the service manual for an iPhone before.
Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit and a champion of the right to repair.iFixit
Why now? Is it because of the kind of lobbying you've been doing?
It’s clear that this is in response to pressure from lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating this. So there was pressure coming from all sides. They are trying to kind of get ahead of it.
Is it your sense that they're genuinely trying to get repair parts into people's hands at fair prices—that this represents a change in their philosophy. Or do you think they intend just to make repair parts available in theory so that they satisfy any future regulations?
I think it's going be a little bit of both. But we'll have to wait and see. After two decades of seeing them stymie repair options at every turn, I've got some skepticism. But they're going to make the service manual available publicly. That's a huge step. That's exactly the right thing to do.
There is, however, a catch with the software that they're saying they're going to provide: They're saying that you're going to have to buy the part from Apple in order to use the software to “pair” the part.
Tell me about this pairing of parts that gets done in the Apple devices.
This is the totally new concept that Apple's kind of inventing. It's another way for them to keep control of things and it's kind of novel. Imagine you had two coffee makers and you wanted to take the jar from one coffee maker and use it the other one, but you couldn’t, unless you have the manufacturer's permission. Apple has been doing it with the major parts that you need to repair a phone. So that's the battery, the screen, and the camera.
So I couldn't take a battery out of a phone that I sat on and put it into a working phone of the identical model that has a weak battery?
That's the idea. I can't say that 100% the case. You still can do that right now, but you get warnings—basically the equivalent of a check-engine light. You have to have Apple’s blessing and permission to turn that off.
So this is a little bit like printer ink cartridges, where companies put a chip in the cartridge so that you couldn’t buy an aftermarket replacement cartridge.
It's worse: It's like saying if I have two identical printers, I can't swap the cartridges between them, even if they're both genuine cartridges. You can't salvage parts in this regime. And this is what all of the recyclers do. They may use 10 broken phones to make three of them work.
Presumably Apple themselves can do this if they want.
Yes. They're just not letting anybody else do it. It's a completely arbitrary restriction.
Is this a problem that like the Federal Trade Commission recognizes?
It's definitely something that they're keeping an eye on. And it's something that we're focusing on in our efforts to promote right-to-repair legislation. You also have the European governments are looking at this. Australian government just yesterday released a landmark 400-page report looking into the overall repair situation, and pairing definitely came up. So there will be pressure on many fronts if Apple insists that they have to bless each repair. I don't think that's going to fly with governments.
Suppose that the future laws and regulations require all electronics manufacturers to make parts available and manuals available at a fair and reasonable price. There's a lot of wiggle room in what you consider “a fair and reasonable price” and what you consider “a part.” Can you see manufacturers dragging their feet, making it so you still can't get repair parts reasonably?
They certainly could. And we expect Apple to price things in a manner that's not really accessible. What we've seen with their independent repair program is that they're charging the repair shops the same price for the part that you pay when go into an Apple store and pay for the complete repair.
That's why we really need an attitude shift. I mean, we're dragging these companies along kicking and screaming. We’d like to see is them embrace the model and find a way that like make it actually work for everybody.
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