Apple Reverses Course on Right to Repair iPhones: More Concessions to Follow?

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Yesterday, Apple, perhaps the most prominent corporate opponent of a right to repair – announced a reversal in its repair policy.

Beginning next year, under the company’s new Self Service Repair program, consumers will be able to buy parts to repair their iPhones, as well as get access to repair manuals and other diagnostic tools.  It’s expected that Apple will implement similar changes covering repair of other devices, including MacBooks and iPads, yet the company has yet to release any such plans, yet alone details. According to Apple:

The initial phase of the program will focus on the most commonly serviced modules, such as the iPhone display, battery, and camera. The ability for additional repairs will be available later next year.

And I’ll admit, although I noted in my post yesterday that I expected welcome news ahead on the right to repair front, I didn’t expect anything like this to happen quite so soon (see Naked Capitalism: Nurturing Our Community of Critical Thinkers During the Pandemic Years…And Some Good News Stories).

What’s Motivated Apple’s Volte Face?

What’s behind Apple’s move? Increased consumer pressure? Perhaps consumer concerns influenced Apple’s calculation, at least in part.  After all, this summer, even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak endorsed the right to repair, as I noted at the time (see Steve Wozniak Endorses the Right to Repair).

I think two other factors combined to convince Apple to mend its ways. First, in July, the new sheriff in town at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Lina Khan, backed by a Biden executive order, adopted a get tough on right to repair issues(see FTC Votes 5-0 to Crack Down on Companies For Thwarting Right to Repair). With Apple, along with John Deere,  a poster child for right to repair foot-dragging, I’m speculating that Apple might be concerned that the FTC might be looking for a test case to signal its new resolve on right to repair issues.

The second reason: shareholder activism. As I wrote in October in Microsoft Endorses Right to Repair; Apple Doubles Down on Opposition:

As Grist reported last week, Bowing to investors, Microsoft will make its devices easier to fix:

In a first-of-its-kind victory for the right-to-repair movement, Microsoft has agreed to take concrete steps to facilitate the independent repair of its devices following pressure from its shareholders.

On Monday, Microsoft and the investor advocacy nonprofit As You Sow reached an agreement concerning a shareholder resolution As You Sow filed in June urging the tech company to analyze the “environmental and social benefits” of making device repair easier. After months of negotiations, Microsoft has agreed to comply — and then some. Not only will the company study how increasing access to the parts and information needed for repair can reduce its contributions to climate change and electronic waste, it has also agreed to act on the findings of that study by the end of next year.

Microsoft’s shift is the first of its kind and was in response to shareholder pressure. Let’s hope it’s not the last – especially given the burgeoning concern about climate change and other environmental issues, especially waste. Enacting a right to repair would help in mitigating climate change and environmental damage.

Yesterday, I was alerted to Apple’s action by an email from Nathan Proctor, senior right to repair campaign director for US PIRG, enclosing a statement. Proctor noted that the company’s announcement of its self service repair program followed its pledge last week to stop deactivating Face Time after independent third party repair services repaired an iPhone screen.

Proctor was careful not to overstate the significance of Apple’s latest move:

The new program isn’t as comprehensive as the Right to Repair reforms discussed in more than two dozen state legislatures this year would be. Given current public information, Apple still maintains a lot of proprietary control over repairs on its devices, although more details are emerging.

Nonetheless, Proctor recognized that Apple’s action represents a major milestone:

“This is a huge milestone for the Right to Repair. One of the most visible opponents to repair access is reversing course, and Apple’s move shows that what repair advocates have been asking for was always possible. After years of industry lobbyists telling lawmakers that sharing access to parts, service tools and manuals would result in safety, security and intellectual property risks, Apple’s sudden change indicates these concerns were overblown. Right to Repair is breaking through.

“Our coalition of tinkerers, fixers, repair shops, DIYers, and consumer and environmental advocates has forced one of the world’s biggest companies to change for the better. It’s a win for repair shops, it’s a win for consumers and it’s a win for the planet.

“As more and more manufacturers show that repair access is reasonable and doable, it should become clear to lawmakers that there are no more excuses. It’s time to give every American the Right to Repair, so everyone can fix all their products. That’s the way it should be.”

The Verge provides further details about what Apple has done, highlighting the importance of shareholder activism  in advancing this result, in The shareholder fight that forced Apple’s hand on repair rights:

But Apple didn’t change its policy out of the goodness of its heart. The announcement follows months of growing pressure from repair activists and regulators — and its timing seems deliberate, considering a shareholder resolution environmental advocates filed with the company in September asking Apple to re-evaluate its stance on independent repair. Wednesday is a key deadline in the fight over the resolution, with advocates poised to bring the issue to the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve.

Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy told The Verge that the program “has been in development for well over a year,” describing it as “the next step in increasing customer access to Apple genuine parts, tools, and manuals.” Leahy declined to say whether the timing of the announcement was influenced by shareholder pressure.

Activist shareholders believe that it was. “The timing is definitely no coincidence,” says Annalisa Tarizzo, an advocate with Green Century, the mutual fund company that filed the right-to-repair resolution with Apple in September. As a result of today’s announcement, Green Century is withdrawing its resolution, which asked Apple to “reverse its anti repair practices” and evaluate the benefits of making parts and tools more available to consumers.

Just how Apple will expand this new program beyond the initial two iPhone models is not yet known. Per The Verge:

Apple’s announcement of the program is light on details, including whether the program will be expanded beyond iPhone 12 and 13 as well as Mac computers using M1 chips, how much genuine parts will cost customers, and whether it will eventually make parts available for a wider range of repairs. Although the announcement implies it will, Leahy declined to confirm that the program will eventually be expanded to other iPhone models. Still, the announcement effectively fulfills Green Century’s request that Apple make significant changes to its repair policies to facilitate independent repair — assuming the tech giant follows through with it.

Yet what we can say at the point is that shareholder activism seems to have provided a key spur to change, with implications beyond the fight for a right to repair. According to The Verge:

Apple’s initial response to the Green Century resolution was less than conciliatory. Tarizzo says that on October 18 (30 days before the self service announcement), Apple submitted a “no action request” to the Securities and Exchange Commission asking the investor oversight body to block the proposal. According to Tarizzo, Apple’s argument before the SEC was that the proposal — that the company “prepare a report” on the environmental and social benefits of making its devices easier to fix — ran afoul of shareholder proposal guidance by infringing on Apple’s normal business operations.

However, earlier this month, the SEC issued new guidance concerning no-action requests that includes a carve-out for proposals that raise “significant social policy issues.” In other words, shareholders can bring resolutions that affect a company’s day-to-day business operations if those proposals raise issues with significant societal impact. Tarizzo believes that this change made it much more likely the SEC would side with Green Century rather than Apple, particularly since the mutual fund company connected the dots between increased access to repair and the fight against climate change. (Using devices as long as possible through maintenance and repair is one of the best ways to reduce the climate impact of consumer technology since the majority of the emissions associated with our gadgets occur during the manufacturing stage.)

“It wasn’t a guarantee that the SEC would side with us, but the new guidance indicates it’s very likely we would prevail,” Tarizzo says. “It effectively took away a lot of Apple’s leverage in the process.”

Now, Apple seems to have regained some leverage by announcing its new Self Service Repair program on the same day that Green Century was required to respond to the no-action request. Instead of arguing that the SEC should allow the shareholder resolution to move forward, Green Century is now withdrawing the resolution entirely.

The Verge notes that company’s typically ignore shareholder resolutions. But the combination of a more activist FTC and with more than half of U.S. states mulling new right to repair laws, the company may have read the tea leaves and decided it could no longer maintain its hardline stance on the issue.

What Comes Next?

Next step: keeping Apple’s feet to the fire to make sure its right to repair reversal represents a deep and genuine corporate shift rather than just the latest form of corporate greenwashing

And, whereas iPhone repair is surely significant, I want to know exactly what Apple intends to do about the rest of its product line: iPads and MacBooks.

In addition, another key concern is whether Apple’s newfound support for broadening customer access to cheap and easy repair will also carry over and influence other design decisions. At present, Apple is notorious for doing things, like using bespoke parts, and constructing and gluing its devices to make it difficult for consumers or independent third party repair services to fix the device when something goes wrong. Will its promise to allow anyone to get access to genuine Apple parts, at least for iPhones 12 and 13, extend to reevaluating how it constructs its devices to enable easy repair? That would mean abandoning its previous mindset that embraced throwing away devices and replacing them rather than extending their lifespans.

In the right to repair universe, maybe Apple’s capitulation will increase pressure on John Deere, another noted right to repair opponent, to reconsider its policies as well.

But beyond that, dare I hope that Apple’s capitulation bodes well for other shareholder activist initiatives – such as measures directed towards combating climate change. That would be some welcome news, given the failure of the COP26 summit to agree a program to confront the looming climate change disaster. I am of course well aware that only massive government-backed initiatives offer any promise of mitigating significantly, let alone averting – the dire climate catastrophe that looms ahead. But little looks on offer on that score at the moment.

So allow me to close on a wan note of cautious optimism, at least with respect to the right of repair. According to The Verge:

The result is a huge victory for Green Century and a validation for shareholder activism more broadly. Tarizzo says that while Apple’s new program “doesn’t go all the way where we want the company to go, we think it’s a significant enough step that it warrants a withdrawal. The fact they’ll be selling common replacement parts, tools, releasing repair manuals, it’s all very much in the spirit of what we were hoping to see happen.”

Certainly not an end result, perhaps. But  perhaps a meaningful first step on the journey.

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12 comments

  1. Eric The Fruit Bat

    Several weeks ago, Apple’s stock went down when the EU mandated that all phones must use USB-C. Coincidence?

    Reply
  2. Mike Mc

    Definitely a meaningful first step.

    Sold and serviced Apple Macintoshes and computer peripherals from 1999 to 2010, then was the ACMT – Apple Certified Macintosh Technician – from 2010 to 2020 for a large state university before retiring a few months early that fall (loved the students but not enough to risk COVID).

    Zillions of repairs in and out of warranty and all the bureaucracy a ‘factory’ tech of any kind that came with.

    IMHO If Apple does this right, and they do have quite a track record, I might un-retire at least enough to be able to do simple repairs for the family and maybe some local folk. Customers could use a break, as well as the small repair shops.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for weighing in from the perspective of someone who’s done Apple repairs before – and may do so again.

      I thought this looked to be a meaningful first step – but I don’t trust Apple, at least not in its current iteration, under its present management, So I tried to retain some healthy skepticism instead of chugging the corporate Kool-Aid.

      Reply
  3. David

    Long-time Apple watcher John Gruber has I think, the best comment on this in his blog Essentially, it’s no big deal, since the number of people who would actually want to repair an iPhone themselves, say, rather than having a professional do it, would be tiny, and the number who were actually capable of doing so in practice would be even less. But it’s a concession to a powerful political lobby, and (I would suggest) to the ageing but still powerful lobby in the tech media which has fond memories of swapping out sound cards from their PCs in the 1990s (OK, I did that too). But given the current state of electronics, whilst there may be people who’d be happy to monkey with the insides of an iPad themselves, I somehow doubt that there would be that many. I’ve had very few repair issues with Apple goods over the decades, but, when I had a problem with my iPhone a couple of years ago, and I was in a small community on the French coast, I took it to the local computer repair shop who ordered the part and did the job in a couple of hours. I paid something for the labour, of course, but even if I had been able to buy the part myself I wouldn’t have been remotely capable of doing the job. Good luck to those who really want to tinker, but I doubt if they will be that numerous.

    Reply
    1. Skip Intro

      I think the exciting opportunity will be for surreptitiously ‘repaired’ iPhones to have added functionality for circumventing the massively paranoid precautions Apple takes to prevent apps from accessing data or hardware features without explicitly making the user enable, say, location tracking, or audio recording. I imagine that fingerprint scanning button could also be home to crafty shenanigans. Why should only a handful of governments have the wherewithal to make pre-hacked iPhones?

      Reply
    2. cresty

      Apple has over half of the market. Even if 1.5 percent of those people want to repair phones themselves, this is a good thing. If you know someone who fixes their own devices, maybe you try to fix your own devices.

      That is, if they actually do it, as we’ve seen companies promise the moon to shoot down binding right to repair stuff and do nothing

      Reply
    3. Carolinian

      There have always been instructions online to for example replace an iPhone battery. I know this because a friend had her battery go bad but eventually took it to a shop.

      But it is quite daunting if you haven’t done it before because the battery is glued in. Since the lithium battery is almost guaranteed to wear out on any electronic device it’s inexcusable to make removal difficult for any reason other than planned obsolescence. One has to wonder how sincere Apple will ever be about ditching their upgrade business model by making repairs easy and not just possible. Like you say parts without design changes only benefit repair shops.

      Reply
  4. Senator-Elect

    This is obviously a small step back toward the light. More interesting is the prospect of small companies offering more environmentally friendly and repairable products. People should check out the Framework laptop and Teracube cell phone. Unfortunately, the Fairphone is only available in the EU.

    It would also be nice if these little players got some capital investment from our finance overlords so that they could raise their profile and increase their production capacity.

    Reply
    1. Hayek's Heelbiter

      Hurray for this small victory in the eWaste War, but there are so many more battles remaining.
      Not sure whose auspices this falls under.
      I’ve been using Brother printers for decades, but more and more the machines seem to be designed by accountants, not tech people or users.
      The toner cartridges work on a page count basis rather than print coverage or amount of toner remaining. Page count is based on printing an A4/Letter sized photograph @ 600 dpi! I mean, really, who prints 600 dpi B/W photos?
      This is the default setting and you can’t change it. You can create your own profile, which you have to manually reload every time you print.
      In the old printers, you could trick the toner cartridge into resetting itself, and continue printing several hundred more pages before you experience lightening of the print. But this feature has been disabled.
      It would not surprise me if the majority of printer cartridges (amazingly complex assemblages of plastic and wires) are discarded when they are actually 1/3 to 1/2 till filled with toner!
      Is there no way to extinguish this ludicrous assault on the environment (and consumer pocket books?

      Reply
  5. Onihikage

    Louis Rossmann, professional repair technician and a major figurehead of the Right To Repair movement, had some things to say about this from the perspective of, “Sounds great, what’s the catch?” For posterity, his video was posted on 17 November 2021 and is currently titled “Apple makes parts and manuals available to all”. I’d like to restate some of the points he went over in that video, including some of the reasons the Apple Authorized Service Partner (AASP) program was a worthless PR stunt, and some of the ways this latest move could end up being more of the same. It will be important to keep an eye on the actual details of the program and how they treat those who try to use it. Some examples, lifted from the video:

    – members of the AASP program cannot stock parts ahead of time for common basic repairs, instead being required to ship the customer’s original part to Apple (along with a lot of information on the customer’s device such as their IMEI if it’s a phone) before being sent the replacement. This makes basic repairs take much longer than they need to (days rather than minutes) and hurts the third-party repair business as their customers will either go to the Apple store or a non-AASP where basic repairs will be done quickly.
    – AASPs are not allowed to stock parts they obtained elsewhere in order to cut down on the turnaround for basic screen or battery replacements, even if those parts are actually genuine and were salvaged from broken hardware or purchased under the table from Apple’s own suppliers (which are typically barred from selling their parts to anyone but Apple).
    – AASPs are subject to random physical audits from Apple, and if they find any “unauthorized” parts, the parts would be confiscated and the AASP would be kicked out of the program and fined or sued because Apple seems to hold the stance that any part which didn’t come directly from them must be counterfeit and is therefore grounds to send Customs after your repair shop.
    – AASPs are only allowed to perform specific types of repairs that Apple approves of and provides parts for. If the AASP decides to go on their own and replace, for example, a broken charge port or microphone, despite those not being approved repairs, they will be kicked out of the program.
    – AASPs are required to sign an NDA that bars them from revealing anything about the functional details of the program. Louis was only able to learn what was involved when someone who was part of the program was willing to break the NDA to tell him about it.

    These points add up to mean a skilled third-party repair center will actually be far less capable of servicing Apple devices if they decide to become an Apple-authorized service center. The AASP is literally sabotage wrapped in pro-R2R propaganda, and the NDA indicates Apple knew exactly what they were doing. It’s a scam.

    That’s the previous PR stunt though – what about this latest move? Here are some important questions to ask:

    1) Will parts be available to repair shops to stock in bulk, such as batteries and screens, or only to individuals and only one part at a time?
    2) Will parts require sending the original part back first, or can they simply be freely ordered like with any other product?
    3) Will the parts made available be offered to the level of granularity that makes common repairs cost-effective?
    4) Will the parts made available actually be useful for common repairs? Providing 200 little resistors from the motherboard means nothing if the charge port, battery, and screen are actually still unavailable.

    Two examples for #3. The display, meaning the part that actually displays an image, might only cost $150, while the entire display assembly could run you $800. If only the display is broken and not the digitizer (thing what senses your finger) or the frame or the glass or the backlight, a repair with a $150 part is easy to swallow and will actually get a repair shop a customer, while an $800 part will make the customer think “I might as well go to the Apple store to buy a new one instead.”

    Another thing that’s common is for a laptop keyboard or trackpad to not be available on its own, only in an entire top case which includes not just the keyboard but also the trackpad and the whole top of the laptop case. The keyboard might be $50, but the whole top case might be $200. Replacing just the keyboard might be a more difficult job and take a little longer, but if you can knock that much of the parts cost off, a repair shop (or individual) could make the fix for much less money while also producing less e-waste.

    I hope this information from Louis’ video provides some more perspective around Apple’s announcement. He’s cynical, as am I, that this is just Apple trying to head off legislation at the pass while functionally changing nothing, so the R2R movement needs to keep pushing.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for these details. I don’t trust Apple on R2R issues, particularly under its present management (or on broader issues, come to think of it), and your comment supplies reasons to support such a skeptical stance.

      This new Apple policy is currently limited to two iPhone models only. The R2R movement certainly needs to keep pushing. As more details emerge, despite all the sound and fury, this new Apple policy may actually signal nothing fundamental has changed, nor will it, absent further R2R movement pressure, and regulatory and legislative action, at both federal and state levels.

      First off, when all is said and done, Apple may opt not to extend the new repair program much beyond the iPhone universe.

      Beyond that, as you point out, the specifics of what parts Apple chooses to make available, on what terms and according to what timescale, will be key to whether it’s cost effective for a consumer to pursue a repair option when a device breaks, rather than opt to purchase a new device.

      So consumers and R2R advocates must continue to be vigilant.

      The answers to the four questions you pose are central to assessing whether the new program marks a meaningful shift, or is just Apple repackaging its underlying continued hostility to repair in a seemingly repair-friendly guise, so as to deter further federal or state legislation or enforcement initiatives.

      Reply

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