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Apple must fix its self-service repair program, say critics

A+ for marketing, F- for blocking aftermarket parts with serial number checks

The debut of Apple's self-service repair program has not mended the rift between the iBiz and repair advocacy groups, which continue to see Cupertino's resistance to product repairs as an effort to retain revenue that might otherwise go to others.

Apple on Wednesday launched its Self-Service Repair Store, a website where those interested in fixing broken iPhone 12, 13, and SE 3 hardware can acquire Apple-approved parts, tools, and documentation. The company announced the plan in November, which looked like a change of heart given its previous avid lobbying to derail legislation that would require more repairable products.

Persistent agitation by the Right to Repair movement, amplified by antitrust concerns about Big Tech, has led to legislative proposals in at least 27 US states that support the right to repair. And the issue has proven to be very popular with US voters.

A February CALPIRG survey of 212 Californians found 75 percent support the Right to Repair, including 76.64 percent of Democrats, 61.36 percent of Republicans, and 81.97 percent of Independents – with only 6 percent opposing repairs. President Biden last year issued an Executive Order affirming support for repairable products. And the Federal Trade Commission has said [PDF] it will take action against companies that thwart product repairs.

Read the fine print

Yet Apple's nod to what looks like political inevitability has already been dismissed by two repair advocacy groups as a marketing ploy.

"I’ll give their marketing team an A+ for retaining their repair monopoly while offering the pretense of cooperation without actually delivering on right to repair," said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, in a blog post published on Wednesday.

Gordon-Byrne suggests Apple's efforts are intended to stall legislation and she expects company intransigence could provide an incentive for lawmakers to pass statues that require full access to repair materials on reasonable terms.

The problem, she argues, is that Apple has been using parts pairing technology – where parts are required to have certain serial numbers to be activated and functional.

Other repair-oriented organizations cite the same issue. Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability for iFixit, welcomed Apple's step in the right direction but condemned the company for tying parts to serial numbers.

"Apple is doubling down on their parts pairing strategy, enabling only very limited, serial number-authorized repairs," explained Chamberlain in a blog post.

"You cannot purchase key parts without a serial number or IMEI. If you use an aftermarket part, there’s an 'unable to verify' warning waiting for you. This strategy hamstrings third-party repair with feature loss and scare tactics and could dramatically limit options for recyclers and refurbishers, short-circuiting the circular economy."

In an email, Gordon-Byrne told The Register that she believes upcoming legislation will force Apple to do more to support product repairs.

"Specifically, Apple will have to cease tying their parts to the motherboard without offering consumers and independents the same options directly," said Gordon-Byrne.

"Parts pairing is currently used to thwart repairs using both original Apple parts and undoubtedly using non-OEM original parts. The potential to entirely block repairs through pairing is an existential threat to repairs and not just by Apple. The same techniques are being used in home appliances, tractors, and cars."

Gordon-Byrne said she's less concerned about high prices for new parts than ensuring that salvaged parts can be used for repairs. "People tend to lose the option of repair as equipment ages when new parts are not available, so it's essential that used parts remain viable," she said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. ®

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