Right to repair? At least you still have the right to despair: Camera modules cannot be swapped on the iPhone 12

Not without Apple's proprietary System Configuration app anyway

Right-to-repair campaigners have discovered that Apple's iPhone 12 rejects replacement camera modules in the absence of a proprietary software tool.

Aussie YouTuber Hugh Jeffreys found that when a camera module is transplanted from one iPhone 12 to another, it exhibits behaviours that make it almost impossible to use the device's photography functionality. Users with transplanted camera modules cannot switch between the primary and ultra-wide lenses, and the app frequently exhibits instability and unresponsiveness.

Restoring proper functionality requires the use of a proprietary, cloud-linked System Configuration app, which is only available to Apple's approved technicians.

The issue was subsequently confirmed by an iFixit investigation.

Paradoxically, it remains physically straightforward to rip and replace the camera module on the iPhone 12. Apple has largely retained the same approaches as seen with previous versions, including a sparing use of adhesive and modular component design.

In its teardown, published prior to the discovery of this issue, iFixit gave the iPhone 12 a Repairability Score of six – the same as the iPhone 11. Problems emerge when someone attempts a real-world repair.

Where spare parts come from

Independent repair shops have multiple ways of sourcing components. This was best explained by Rossmann Group founder Louis Rossmann during the trial of Henrik Husby, a Norwegian electronics repairman sued by Apple on trademark violation allegations after he imported unofficial iPhone displays from China.

In his testimony, Rossmann, who runs a repair business in New York, as well as a popular MacBook repair YouTube channel, explained the three avenues available to independent providers.

The best option is "new original" parts, which have never been used and are identical to those used when a device is first assembled. The second-best option is refurbished components scavenged from donor devices. These are identical, but have experienced some usage. Finally, if those two fail, there are compatible (but unofficial) components produced by third-party manufacturers.

Apple and other manufacturers have kept tight control of their supply chains, providing only specific components to a network of approved repair shops. Those components are almost always complete products (like logic boards) rather than specific chips to be soldered onto a circuit board.

That ultimately leaves third-party and refurbished components as the sole remaining avenues available to independent repair shops. Both options are progressively under attack, as this development shows.

This latest development comes after appeared to be gradually increasing its network of highly-controlled authorised repair outlets. In June, it expanded its Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program to Europe and Canada, following a US launch in 2019.

A matter of freedom

There's some precedent here. The chips used to power the TouchID and FaceID sensors in the iPhone cannot be interchanged between devices as these are linked to the device's Secure Enclave chip. This is an Arm-based co-processor responsible for managing encryption keys and, as the name implies, separate from the phone's primary SoC.

But while you can use TouchID and FaceID to authenticate into a phone and approve Apple Pay payments, you can do neither of those things with the iPhone's rear-facing camera.

In the absence of a compelling security argument, you can only conclude that Apple has chosen to restrict camera repairs in order to extinguish independent repair businesses in favour of its own Genius Bar service, as well as those approved repair shops within its network.

iFixit decried this move as an assault on user freedom, and suggested it undermines Apple's eco-friendly credentials.

"Apple states in its recent environmental report that 76 per cent of the emissions created by its products are created in manufacturing. It claims that 'making repairs more convenient and reliable is directly aligned' with its environmental goals. And Apple claims that it has made 'design choices so that products are easier to repair'.

"Given the huge number of iPhones in the world, and the potential for reusing their components, it's hard to see how tightening access to common repairs fits these goals."

Apple was scheduled to speak to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) earlier this year about the ecological and sustainability impact of its repair policies, but cancelled at the last minute. It has since refused to substantively answer written questions submitted by the committee.

The Register has asked Apple to comment. We'll update the story if we hear back. ®

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