Apple Doesn’t Want You To Be Able To Fix Your iPhone—Here’s Why

The cure for planned Apple-escence

Kendra Pierre-Louis

A broken cell phone that would normally be thrown away is repaired

Twen­ty-five years ago, my family’s tele­vi­sion, a stur­dy mass of wood and tubes, went on the fritz. The curved glass screen had tak­en to dis­play­ing every­thing from the Smurfs to Peter Jen­nings in shades of green. Ship­ping the mas­sive box to the man­u­fac­tur­er was out of the ques­tion. Instead, a call to a local, inde­pen­dent repair­per­son was placed. For a frac­tion of the cost of replace­ment, he restored our set to its Tech­ni­col­or glory.

“It’s not just Apple,” says Gordon-Byrne. “Any manufacturer that doesn’t want to provide parts and tools can instantly, without any difficulty, refuse to repair equipment and say that your only choice is to buy a new product.”

Just 20 years lat­er, when an errant elbow cracked my family’s three-year-old flat-screen, no repair calls were made. What was the point? Replac­ing it would be cheap­er, so that TV joined the 41.8 mil­lion tons of e‑waste dis­card­ed around the world in 2014— much of it toxic.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, the idea of toss­ing out a bro­ken tele­vi­sion would have seemed waste­ful, or just plain stu­pid. Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom sug­gests that rapid advances in tech­nol­o­gy — your aver­age smart­phone, after all, has more com­put­ing pow­er than NASA used for the orig­i­nal Apol­lo mis­sions — com­bined with the declin­ing costs of off­shore labor, means the cul­ture of repair is los­ing the free-mar­ket bat­tle against cheap replace­ment costs. Right?

Wrong, says Gay Gor­don-Byrne, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Dig­i­tal Right to Repair Coali­tion. The coali­tion of tin­ker­ers, used-equip­ment sell­ers, e‑waste reduc­tion groups and con­cerned indi­vid­u­als came togeth­er in 2013 to serve as the pub­lic voice on issues of the dig­i­tal after­mar­ket: what we’re allowed— and increas­ing­ly not allowed — to do with our products.

The lack of repairabil­i­ty is delib­er­ate on the part of man­u­fac­tur­ers,” says Gor­don-Byrne. It takes prop­er con­struc­tion to cre­ate devices that can be repaired, as well as basic sup­port to allow those repairs to hap­pen. Many items are unfix­able by design, like Apple’s 2015 Reti­na Mac­book, which uses pro­pri­etary screws, and sol­ders and glues com­po­nents in place. But many items could be repaired, with the right parts and knowl­edge. The local repair­per­son of my child­hood was aid­ed by man­u­fac­tur­ers’ pro­vid­ing man­u­als and sell­ing parts. Those are two things that, for the most part, no longer happen.

Their busi­ness mod­el now,” says Gor­don-Byrne, is: You ship the TV back to them. They fix it, but they charge you what­ev­er they want. They don’t allow Mr. Bob’s TV repair to buy the parts, the tools, or to get the manuals.”

Com­pa­nies often sim­ply urge cus­tomers to pur­chase a new device. I heard this sto­ry recent­ly,” says Gor­don-Byrne. A teenager’s head­phone jack on his iPhone didn’t work, so he took it to the Apple Store for repair. The store told him that his phone was off war­ran­ty and, regard­less, they don’t repair head­phone jacks.” Instead, he was giv­en the option to trade in for a new phone at a hefty cost of $275. In this case he was lucky: The head­phone jack is a com­mon com­po­nent across smart­phones and can be pur­chased in bulk for as lit­tle as 10 cents. A tin­ker­er was able to fix the sup­pos­ed­ly irrepara­ble phone for $25. In 2014, how­ev­er, new man­u­fac­tur­er guide­lines released by Apple prompt­ed rumors that the com­pa­ny may phase out this stan­dard con­nec­tor for its own pro­pri­etary light­ning” port. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s not just Apple,” says Gor­don-Byrne. Any man­u­fac­tur­er that doesn’t want to pro­vide parts and tools can instant­ly, with­out any dif­fi­cul­ty, refuse to repair equip­ment and say that your only choice is to buy a new product.”

That doesn’t mean repair is impos­si­ble — just dif­fi­cult. For parts, one must typ­i­cal­ly turn to Asian sup­pli­ers that skirt intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty laws and often lack qual­i­ty con­trol. For infor­ma­tion, one must depend on indi­vid­u­als who dis­sect devices on YouTube and web­sites like iFix­it, a crowd­sourced part of the Right to Repair Coali­tion that pro­vides instruc­tion man­u­als and ranks prod­ucts by ease of repair.

Increas­ing­ly, com­pa­nies cre­ate bar­ri­ers in the form of pro­pri­etary black box soft­ware. Gor­don-Byrne tells the sto­ry of a woman with a bro­ken refrig­er­a­tor who was able to iden­ti­fy which part had bro­ken, pro­cure the dig­i­tal part, and suc­cess­ful­ly replace it — despite a lack of offi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion — only to be stymied by the need for a reset code. The only way to get the code? Pay­ing for a tech­ni­cian to come out and enter it. Gor­don-Byrne calls such prac­tices abu­sive.”

The trac­tor com­pa­ny John Deere has said that own­ing its prod­ucts is lit­tle more than a license to use them. It argues that any mod­i­fi­ca­tion of their soft­ware — say, to fix a bro­ken har­vester in a rur­al place where a tech­ni­cian may not arrive for days, but crops can spoil in hours — would vio­late copy­right law.

Such poli­cies mean that the next gen­er­a­tion of engi­neers won’t be able to tin­ker as chil­dren with­out risk­ing a law­suit. Imag­ine if the Wright Broth­ers had been pre­vent­ed from reengi­neer­ing the bike.

In addi­tion, the net result of such restric­tions is high­er repair costs, few­er jobs and more tox­ic waste. As of 2011, Amer­i­cans were gen­er­at­ing 3.4 mil­lion tons of elec­tron­ic waste annu­al­ly, 75 per­cent of which wound up in incin­er­a­tors, accord­ing to the EPA. Elec­tron­ic waste is a tox­ic stew of more than 1,000 mate­ri­als. A typ­i­cal tube tele­vi­sion includes up to 8 pounds of lead, accord­ing to the Elec­tron­ics Take­Back Coali­tion. New­er flat screens have less lead, but more mer­cury. These chem­i­cals con­t­a­m­i­nate soil and drink­ing water. If burned, they foul the air.

Recy­cling is not the answer, either. We ship about 40 per­cent of elec­tron­ics ear­marked for recy­cling to coun­tries like Chi­na, India, Ghana and Nige­ria. Because so many elec­tron­ics are not designed to be repaired, tak­ing apart these prod­ucts is haz­ardous. It fre­quent­ly involves burn­ing them or using cor­ro­sive acids to melt away the plas­tic and extract the gold, sil­ver, cop­per and oth­er pre­cious met­als that, com­bined with low wages, make elec­tron­ics recy­cling prof­itable. In Xiejia, Chi­na, with more than 3,000 reg­is­tered recy­cling busi­ness­es, the mon­ey comes at a cost: Lead lev­els in children’s blood­streams have been high enough to cause irre­versible brain dam­age.

In New York and Min­neso­ta, the coali­tion has got­ten leg­is­la­tion intro­duced — though not yet passed — that would require man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­vide ser­vice infor­ma­tion, secu­ri­ty updates and replace­ment parts. It’s based on a Mass­a­chu­setts auto repair bill, passed in 2012, that requires auto com­pa­nies to stan­dard­ize their diag­nos­tic codes and repair data by 2018. The bills in New York and Min­neso­ta, how­ev­er, are more expan­sive, encom­pass­ing any­thing that con­tains a microchip, from med­ical equip­ment to trac­tors to cellphones.

We’re los­ing jobs in the state of New York because these large cor­po­ra­tions are man­dat­ing repair work be done by their own com­pa­nies,” says Repub­li­can state Sen. Phil Boyle, who intro­duced the bill in New York. The more ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion there is, the less free mar­ket there is. The small repair shop down the street needs to stay in business.”

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times’ Board of Edi­tors. Kendra is a Queens, New York-based jour­nal­ist. Her work has appeared in, Newsweek, Earth Island Jour­nal and Mod­ern Farmer. She is the author of Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Plan­et (Ig Pub­lish­ing 2012).
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