Apple pairs well with profits, not repair shops

iFixit demotes iPhone 14 from 7/10 to 4 after reality of software locks hit home

As you were. It would appear that Apple's overtures to the tech repairability movement and associated legislation like California's SB 244 were just leading us all on, at least according to repair gurus at iFixit.

Everything was going so well. The company's iPhone 14 from 2022, soon to be superseded, received plaudits from iFixit for skipping the globs of glue and solder that made it nigh impossible to disassemble the handsets and redesigning its internal architecture to make it more repair-friendly.

"This design improvement is a big win," CEO Kyle Wiens said in his teardown review, awarding the iPhone 14 a 7/10, its highest score since the iPhone 7. "These changes to the iPhone will help it last longer and reduce its overall impact on the planet. With any luck, it will inspire other manufacturers to follow suit. All of our – and your – work has paid off. Our advocating, lobbying, yelling in the streets. We've convinced Apple's design team that repairability matters."

Yeah, nah.

You see, the week after The Register reported iFixit's take, we received word from another repair enthusiast, Hugh Jeffreys, basically saying that all the innovative hardware design in the world cannot make an iPhone fixable by its owner or an independent business if "Apple has programmed its software to reject certain parts that were not installed by Apple."

This is the phenomenon of parts pairing, wherein your iPhone freaks out if anyone replaces a component without Apple's blessing.

"Replacing your display will remove True Tone and break Auto Brightness. A new battery will disable Battery Health. A new front camera will break Face ID, portrait mode and cinematic mode. A rear camera will only give you a warning message. And lastly, replacing the logic board will trigger all of the previous penalties," Jeffreys said, describing the practice as anti-third party repair locks.

This is despite Apple's Self Service Repair selling genuine parts for owners willing to get intimate with their iPhone's innards. Any repair carried out by a user or third party, however, needs to be validated by Apple itself.

Almost a year to the day, a grim-faced (we imagine) Wiens has retroactively demoted the iPhone 14 from 7/10 to 4. While insisting that iFixit remains "big fans" of Apple's change in direction with the 14, he admitted that "the reality for folks trying to fix these things has been very different."

"Lots of independent repair shops have business models that are threatened by Apple's parts pairing practice," he wrote. "Shops harvest parts from broken devices. They use third-party parts. They shouldn't have to send Apple their customers' personal information, or agree to five years of audits just to do the repairs they know how to do.

"So when we gave the iPhone 14 a high score, the community pushed back. To be honest, they were right – and we'd like to thank our critics for helping us hold manufacturers accountable.

"The situation has gotten so bad that several repair professionals have told us they're leaving the business entirely rather than navigate the labyrinthine maze of obstacles that Apple has erected."

Wiens acknowledged that iFixit's scoring system has become outdated in the face of sneaky software locks, for years focusing on which products were actually designed for physical repair – taking the device apart, replacing the problematic component, putting it back together again.

But maintenance of Apple products now require a System Configuration tool, which "contacts Apple's servers to 'authenticate' the repair, then 'pairs' the new part to your system so it works as expected."

"Of course, it can only authenticate if Apple knows about your repair in advance," Wiens wrote, "because you gave them the exact serial number of your iPhone, and they've pre-matched it to a display or battery. This is only possible if you buy the screen or battery directly from Apple."

This means that one cannot simply harvest a battery from your friend's identical iPhone that sadly has a cracked screen. You can also forget about aftermarket parts – "only Apple-authorized repairs can truly restore the device to full functionality."

Wiens confessed that iFixit is reluctant to criticize manufacturers "taking meaningful steps" but agreed that "parts pairing is a serious threat to our ability to fix the things we own."

Although Apple would like to be seen to care about repairability as it becomes more important among consumer protections in law, the reality is that it is not a priority for a company known for its vice-like control of its products in the name of user experience.

The downside to this premium feel on an Apple phone or computer is that it ultimately comes at the expense of the user, who will have to buy a new one once their product is no longer supported, and Mother Nature, who just earned another bucket of e-waste.

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We have asked Apple to explain its philosophy around these matters and will update if we hear back.

Let's see if the repairability story is any different for the incoming iPhone 15. ®

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