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The Right to Repair Movement Is Forcing Apple to Change

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

"They have decided to be nicer to consumers in order to stop them from demanding their right to repair."

For the better part of the last decade, every design decision Apple has made has seemingly been in the pursuit of making its products thinner and more beautiful at the expense of upgradability and repairability. Those decisions helped Apple sell millions of phones and computers, but they also helped create a movement that rejects the idea that expensive gadgets should be disposable.

It's increasingly looking like Apple can no longer ignore the repair insurgency that's been brewing: The right to repair movement is winning, and Apple's behavior is changing.

In the last few months, Apple has made political, design, and customer service decisions that suggest the right to repair movement is having a real impact on the company's operations. Apple announced that the new Mac Pro will be modular and upgradable, and it quietly made the CPU and RAM upgradable in its new 21.5-inch iMac for the first time since 2014.

Last year, Apple announced a replacement program for iPhone 6 Plus devices with "touch disease," a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of iPhone owners and was discovered and hyped by the independent repair community. Apple reversed course on "Error 53,"—which bricked phones repaired by third parties—after widespread outrage. Apple also announced that it would start to honor the warranties of devices repaired by third party shops, a problem that I reported on last year.

Apple Stores alone cannot handle the needs of Apple's customers

Most importantly, Apple told Reuters that it will make its "Horizon Machine" (we've been calling it the iPhone Calibration Machine) available to 400 members of its Authorized Service Provider program. This machine recalibrate the home button of replacement screens to the broken device, making it easier to repair cracked iPhone screens. The machine is also the only way home buttons can be replaced without breaking Touch ID.

Apple's authorized repair program leaves a lot to be desired—companies must pay a fee to join the program, and those who join aren't allowed to do many types of repair (such as a charge port replacement, which is trivially easy for any repair professional).

In that sense, authorized repair isn't really independent repair at all.

"This gesture is still smoke and mirrors," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, which is working to pass right to repair legislation, told me. "They remain in total monopoly control of repair—just in more locations."

"Their policies on glass repair have made them a huge and easy target worldwide"

The move is still important because of what it represents: An admission that Apple Stores alone cannot handle the needs of Apple's customers. Apple Geniuses who I've spoken to in states with only a couple Apple Stores have told me stories of customers having to drive hours to get their phone repaired, only to learn that they need an appointment or will need to stay overnight at a hotel to wait for their device to be repaired.

The move is significant for another reason: Right now, "fair repair" bills are currently making their way through 12 states. The bills would require Apple to sell replacement parts and tools—including the Horizon Machine—to independent repair shops and the general public. The electronics industry's lobbyists have been telling lawmakers that authorized repair offers sufficient options for the general public, and so those advocating right to repair see this as an attempt by Apple to stave off the movement.

"They have decided to be nicer to consumers in order to stop consumers from demanding their right to repair," Gordon-Byrne said. "Their policies on glass repair have made them a huge and easy target worldwide."

Apple has repeatedly made small concessions to its customers on the issues that Repair.org and the larger repair community have decided to highlight. The question is whether these concessions are going to be enough to satiate customers who want their devices to be easily repairable and upgradable, and whether the right to repair movement can convince those people to continue demanding fair treatment.