As software and hardware become ubiquitous, the consumers right to alter or fix their electronics rests in the hands of large tech corporations. In a multi-billion-dollar service industry, consumers are facing an uphill battle against companies who have stripped users of their right to repair their owned and operated electronics. It boils down to a battle of ownership – you bought the device, but do you really own it?
You have just purchased a brand new $1400 iPhone, only to have the misfortune of cracking its beautiful, retina display. The situation takes a turn for the worst as you soon remember opting out from the overpriced and always advertised – AppleCare. After bringing in your phone to the Apple store, you are told that a new screen replacement will cost you over $600, plus service fees – a price that amounts to over a third of the product’s initial cost. Why does it have to be this way?
A breakdown of the price to manufacture an iPhone XS from The Cult of Mac reveals that the screen costs Apple only USD $80.50 to produce. Whether you choose to fix your iPhone’s screen or buy a completely new device, you’re stuck paying Apple a hefty repair fee leaving you none the wiser.
However, there is hope. Your journey to fix your cellular device does not end with Apple. The ability to shed a few bucks at a third-party repair shop also becomes a viable alternative. Even if you choose this option, a third-party repair is one in which few individuals are fully aware of the legal ramifications. Namely, the issues associated with how third-party repairs attain the schematics necessary to diagnose and repair Apple-certified products.
Since 2009, the Right to Repair Movement has pushed the Canadian government to combat large corporations who restrict users from fixing, upgrading or having internal access to their devices. Corporations use a series of trade secrets, complex matrices, and government interventions to restrict the number of users who are legally allowed to repair their products. In recent years, Canada has struggled to implement any laws to combat this problem, while conversely, significant progress has been made in 17 states south of the border. In places such as California, every consumer and repair shop is granted full legal authority to tinker with and repair electronic devices without breaking Copyright Law.
Apple has issued a plethora of obstacles over the past decade to establish itself as the only repair shop in town. Mark Schaffer from Repair.org stated:
“When manufacturers are the only shop around, prices go up and quantity goes down”
Physical barriers, such as preoperatory screws, are the first obstacle that Apple has employed to thwart users from accessing the internals of their devices. Nicknamed, “pentalobe screws”, these parts are easy to strip and require a unique screwdriver to operate. Other non-legislative tactics, such as software updates, have been used by Apple to “brick” devices that can self-detect non-OEM (original electronic manufacturer) parts.
Consumers largely became aware of these tactics in 2016 when Apple admitted to quietly releasing a software update that would disable iPhones whose hardware was not installed by the manufacturer. On April 23, 2016, millions of users were surprised to find themselves locked out of their devices – which only displayed “Error code 53”. It was soon discovered that these phones had been previously repaired by third-party vendors. Apple had gone against its own consumers who failed to comply with the corporation’s legal requirements for owning and operating their devices. The software update was eventually met with a class-action lawsuit; however, the victory was short-lived as Apple turned to Copyright Law to protect their assets. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, known as the DMCA, had made it illegal to break digital locks protecting copyrighted work.
The question still remains – why would Apple go to such great extreme lengths to deter its customers from fixing their devices? Researchers from the IBIS estimated that global electronic repairs generated over $79 billion dollars in revenue in 2017. In this world of repairs and maintenance, companies can achieve up to 90% profit margins on their own products using this business strategy. Since Copyright Law enables Apple to restrict the purchase and use of their hardware by third-party technicians, consumers are forced to pay the corporations outlandish prices.
The lack of hardware parts and product manuals on the open market permits Apple to monopolize and regulate almost all repairs made to their devices. Third-party repair shops are left with sourcing alternative and compatible hardware from China to sustain their businesses.
That’s where companies like iFixit come into play. The company runs an online repair community where people post tutorials on repairing a broad range of products. Founded in 2009, the company generates US $21 million per year in sales from its tools and repair kits. Its financial model is reliant on the 50,000 users who provide daily tips which comprise an online library of open source manuals. Upon the release of an Apple product, the company will deconstruct and reverse engineer the device to develop an open source manual. However, their success hasn’t come without any obstacles. iFixit has faced a number of lawsuits from Apple since 2010 which resulted in the removal of its app from the App Store. Regardless, Kyle Wiens, the current CEO and co-founder has stated; “Because Apple owns the rights to the manual, they own the copyright to it… and so if you post the manual online, they’ll send you a legal takedown notice”. He later went on the state his belief,
“If you can’t fix [your device], you don’t own it”
Some may argue the decision to design ‘unrepairable products’ originates out of spite for companies such as iFixit. One could also make the claim that these design elements are simply necessary to provide users with the portability of thinner devices. If this is the case, then their pursuit of engineering thinner devices has had some serious consequences for the individual consumer. For instance, by soldering all hardware components to the device’s logic board, Apple can effectively increase service costs, while reducing consumer reparability. It stands to reason that if your hard drive, ram, or CPU fails, your $2000 MacBook will live out its days as a shiny new paperweight. In early 2019, my brother experienced a failed HDD on his 2018 space-grey MacBook which required Apple to replace the computers entire logic board – a $900 repair that averages only $100 on comparable alternatives to the Macintosh.
With legislation looming over the horizon, Apple has perverted the design of its products so that they too can stand as physical barriers against third-party repairs.
(Above) These photos illustrate the lengths that Apple has gone to make their devices unrepairable. On the left, the 2012 MacBook (14in/pro) received a 7/10 reparability score from iFixit. Removing the back panel allows easy access to components like the hard drive, ram, battery, and CD bay. Only five years later, the 2017 MacBook pro (above, right) provides users with no such options. In a CBC News interview, Kyle Wiens commented; “Apple’s perspective is that they want complete control over the device- from the moment you buy it – all the way through to the end of its life. The Right to Repair movement takes some of that control away and puts it back into the hands of customers”.
In a world of planned obsolescence, one must ask how this materialistic financial model affects the environment. Of the 3.4 million tons of e-waste produced in America last year, TechDump – a Minnesota based recycling centre – reported that they could only legally repair about 14% of their electronic waste. The other 86% is recycled into raw materials or sent to landfill. These practices stop waste companies from recycling used products back into the marketplace. Gay Gordon-Byrne of the New York Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation claimed; “We know there is too much e-waste because there is too little repair. We aren’t allowed to fix all the things that could be reused because of manufacturer policies blocking repair”.
If legislation passes, it would require Apple, Samsung, and other electronics manufacturers to supply parts and detailed repair manuals to home and non-Apple repair technicians. The increase in competition would reduce repair fees for the average consumer, while simultaneously increasing the longevity of devices to combat the growing levels of e-waste. Providing open source technology to the consumer may also lead to the greatest milestone in environmental sustainability. While Apple is not the only perpetrator of these tactics, they stand to represent the collective interests of many manufacturers in their fight against The Right to Repair movement. The next time you are deciding to purchase a new electronic, take a moment to consider whether or not you truly own that device.