Apple Battery Debacle: Yet Another Reason to Support a Right to Repair

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

Apple reported earlier this month that a software update deliberately degraded performance of older iPhones, ostensibly to prevent unexpected shutdowns as the device’s battery ages, without warning users (see this post by Yves,
Quelle Surprise! Apple Rips Off Owners of Older iPhones, for further details).

Faced with a throttled iPhone– and having no clue as to why the device had slowed down– many consumers undoubtedly opted to pony up for a new device, when a simple battery replacement would have made the old phone work as before. This outcome is no doubt a feature of the Apple policy, not a bug, although in an apologia posted Thursday, the company denied that was the case. Well, they would now, wouldn’t they?

Not only does this crapification goose Apple’s profits, it also contributes to the waste crisis that threatens to bury us in plastics and ewaste, as I discussed in this previous post, Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste.

Unsurprisingly, several lawsuits have been filed against the company, according to Reuters, in federal district courts in California, Illinois, and New York, as well as Israel. Seems to me that the company does have a bit of a case to answer here– but I’ll admit I’ve not read any of the filings, and I’ll not delve into any legal issues in this post.

Botched Battery Replacements?

Apple initially responded by botching the rollout of a program to allow customers to get a replacement battery for iPhones 6 or later. Customers could get a new battery for $29, rather than the $79 usually charged, but would have to wait until the end of January to qualify for that discount, according to CNN. The $50 discount will expire at the end of 2018. Customers must bring their iPhones into an Apple store, or mail them in for service.

On Saturday, Apple announced that the discount would be available immediately but an Apple spokesperson hinted, somewhat ominously, that further holdups might be expected, according to CNN:

“We expected to need more time to be ready, but we are happy to offer our customers the lower pricing right away. Initial supplies of some replacement batteries may be limited,” said an Apple spokesperson in a statement.

iFixit has further picked up on this point, noting in Apple apologizes, but continues to fight against Right to Repair:

There are hundreds of millions of iPhones that need new batteries, but Apple’s only got 499 retail stores. Keeping all those iPhones operational is going to take a village — DIYers, independent pro repair shops, and of course Apple’s service centers.

For those who don’t want to wait– or have older iPhones not covered by the Apple battery discount– there is an alternative. iFixit has slashed the price of its battery replacement kits to match Apple’s $29:

In fact, $29 sounds like a pretty good price. Effective immediately, we’re cutting the prices on all of our DIY battery install kits to $29 or less as well. The kits include all the tools you need to open up and swap your own battery. We also have options for the iPhone 4S, 5, 5s and 5c — which are excluded from Apple’s new program.

Now, on the one hand, it’s a bit of a drag having to open up the device and replace the battery. That burden’s offset, however, by not having to stand in line at an Apple store, or surrender your phone, while you wait to have it repaired.  To me, one definition of hell would be having to get anywhere near a big city Apple store during the holiday shopping period (and the returns hangover).

It seems I’m not the only one who thinks that way, as iFixit has noticed a jump in demand for its DIY alternative:

In the last week, we’ve seen an incredible 3x increase in people using iFixit to replace their batteries. Installing a new battery has a big impact, and makes your phone feel good as new. Millions of people — most with no prior electronics experience — have learned how to repair their iPhone. Just this month, 171,221 people have used our iPhone 6 battery install guide. Across all iPhone models, 509,867 people have learned how to replace their battery this month.

Right to Repair

What’s been bad for Apple has been good for iFixit. So I’m not surprised they’ve taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice not to let a crisis got to waste and are proselytizing on behalf of a right to repair:

This incident underscores the importance of maintenance and repair of electronics. Unfortunately, Apple has been leading the fight against Right to Repair legislation. That legislation would, not coincidentally, require Apple sell batteries directly to consumers and third party repair shops.

This public outcry, and the hard work of journalists around the world, has caused Apple to blink. That’s great, but their proposed fix is only temporary. Battery prices are going back up in a year, and Apple still won’t sell OEM batteries to independent shops. That needs to change.

It’s important to note that while Apple is improving their battery replacement program, every single Android phone manufacturer also refuses to sell consumers integrated batteries or other internal repair parts.

Twelve states are considering Right to Repair legislation. Manufacturers are not acting in the public’s best interest, and it’s time for that to change.

I’ve written about this issue before in Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States. I’m not very optimistic about the short-term prospects for these initiatives. But Apple’s battery screw-up will no doubt prod further pressure for change, particularly if significant bottlenecks develop in its battery replacement program.

One small positive development:  Apple has announced an upcoming software change that will allow a consumer to monitor the health of an iPhone battery:

Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.

If Apple follows through on its pledge, it should reduce unnecessary smartphone purchases– and in a tiny way, reduce waste. And that would be something to celebrate.

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