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The iPhone 7 Has Arbitrary Software Locks That Prevent Repair

The home button is no longer swappable, a concerning move for people who think they actually own the electronics they buy.

Apple has taken new and extreme measures to make the iPhone unrepairable.

The company is now using software locks to prevent independent repair of specific parts of the phone. Specifically, the home buttons of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are not user replaceable, raising questions about both the future repairability of Apple products and the future of the thriving independent repair industry.

The iPhone 7 home button will only work with the original home button that it was shipped with; if it breaks and needs to be replaced, a new one will only work if it is "recalibrated" in an Apple Store. 

The home button has two functions: Touch ID, which unlocks the phone, and the actual "return to home" function you get when you push it. In the iPhone 5S, 6, and 6S, a new home button would break the phone's TouchID functionality, but the button's return-to-home functionality still worked. The phone could still be locked and unlocked as normal by entering a pin number, suggesting that the two functions are separate pieces of software that are not tied together.

In the iPhone 7, both Touch ID and return-to-home functionality are locked by software if you replace the button. Locking down Touch ID makes at least some sense from a security perspective, but locking return-to-home functionality seems like an arbitrary and vindictive move against independent repair businesses and consumers. Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the issue. 

It should be noted that the new home button is a "solid state" part, but it is still separate component that can be removed and moved to another phone without damaging it.

"Not supporting that menu function makes no sense," Justin Carroll, owner of FruitFixed, an independent iPhone repair shop, told me. "Just a sad and petulant move on their part that will directly affect consumers especially after their one year manufacturer warranty is up."

An Apple Store Genius confirmed to me that the home button is only replaceable in Apple Stores and can only be fixed using Apple's proprietary "iPhone Calibration Machine."

"If any damage to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus home button is done, we cannot replace it."

In a video demonstrating the block, Michael Oberdick, owner of the independent iPhone repair shop iOutlet, swapped the front displays (and home buttons) of two iPhone 7 devices. When swapped, the phone displays an error message that says "The Home Button May Need Service." Its functionality is disabled and "Assistive Touch" automatically pops up on the device, creating an onscreen, software-based home button.

Oberdick said that for third party repair companies, this means they often won't be able to guarantee to customers that they can fix their cracked screens, because often home button damage isn't immediately apparent.

"If any damage to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus home button is done, we cannot replace it," Oberdick told me. "In repair, we run across occasions where there is damage to the home button. We cannot always tell if the home button functions pre-repair or if the glass cracking caused a tear of the home button cable during removal of the LCD."

This may sound like an esoteric issue, and to some extent it is—screen replacements can still be done so long as the original home button is carefully removed and moved to the new screen. But software locks specifically designed to prevent repair are a monopolistic, anti-consumer move that attempts to "tie" an electronic to the manufacturer even after it's already been sold.

Software locks are common in other industries—John Deere tractors, for instance, cannot be repaired without specific software codes from a John Deere dealer, and many industrial appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners have similar locks. These locks have become key to the right-to-repair debate, which posits that consumers should not be beholden to the manufacturer's whims on products that they ostensibly own.

This isn't the first time Apple has tried to impose a software lock on the iPhone, but it's the first time that one has been pre-baked into a device. Last year, "Error 53," a software update that bricked phones that had their screens replaced by third party repair shops, caused such a shitstorm that Apple had to eventually reverse course and apologize. The iPhone 7 home button issue is the same type of lock—the question is, will enough people be pissed off to prevent Apple from getting away with it?