Photo by Apple
After taking justified flak in the media for user-hostile actions toward independent hardware repair shops (see “Apple Continues to Harass Tiny Norwegian Repair Shop,” 10 June 2019) and even individuals who want to repair their own devices (see “Apple Starts Locking iPhone Batteries to Thwart Independent Repair,” 9 August 2019), Apple has seemingly reversed course.
The company has announced the Independent Repair Program, which will provide independent repair businesses, regardless of size, with the same genuine parts, tools, training, repair manuals, and diagnostics for iPhone repairs as it gives to Apple Authorized Service Providers. After piloting the program with 20 repair business in North America, Europe, and Asia, Apple is launching the program in the United States with plans to expand it to other countries.
There’s no cost for repair shops to join the Independent Repair Program, although the application information notes that applicants must be established businesses in a commercially zoned area, and all repairs using genuine iPhone parts must be performed by an Apple-certified technician.
While Apple deserves praise for finally acknowledging that it needs the help of independent repair businesses to meet the burgeoning repair needs of the hundreds of millions of iPhone users, there are some caveats and questions to keep in mind.
- iPhone only: The Independent Repair Program is explicitly only for the iPhone. It’s conceivable that Apple could expand it to other devices in the future, but the company may not want to encourage competition in areas where it feels it and Apple Authorized Service Providers can meet demand.
- Common repairs only: In its description, Apple says that the Independent Repair Program will cover “a variety of out-of-warranty iPhone repairs, such as iPhone display and battery replacements.” It’s not clear what will happen if you take a broken iPhone to an independent shop and the problem turns out to be outside the scope of what the Independent Repair Program covers. Will the shop ship the broken iPhone to Apple for you? Will they tell you to do it? Or will they go ahead and repair the iPhone anyway, even if they can’t do it with Apple’s blessing?
- Cost: In its coverage, iFixit notes that although batteries were priced reasonably during Apple’s pilot program, replacement screens for the iPhone XS Max were priced above Apple’s own out-of-warranty repair rate. That means shops will have to charge quite a bit more than Apple to pay for labor costs and overhead. Will this be a case of Apple allowing independent repair, but pricing it such that it won’t be able to compete on cost?
- Right to Repair: Nothing Apple said in relation to the Independent Repair Program suggest that it would be designing its hardware with ease of repair in mind, or in such a way that individuals would be more able to repair their own devices. Having just spent 5 or 6 hours with my son Tristan disassembling and reassembling a dead 2011 27-inch iMac so we could bring its video card back to life by baking it in the oven, I can say with assurance that Apple doesn’t make things easy. (Our efforts paid off, and the iMac works once again!)
Unsurprisingly, Apple continues to frame the entire situation in terms of “safety” and “reliability.” Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, said:
We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested.
It’s undoubtedly true that repairs are best made with properly engineered parts, but Apple’s rhetoric rings a bit hollow given that fires caused by Apple-genuine batteries caused the 2015 MacBook Pro to be banned by various airlines (see “Stop Using Your 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro,” 20 June 2019). (As an aside, read the comments on “FAA Warns Airlines about 2015 15-inch MacBook Pros,” 14 August 2019, for suggestions on what paperwork to bring with you if you need to travel with either an unaffected or repaired MacBook Pro.)
Regardless, the Independent Repair Program is absolutely a positive move for Apple, and we applaud the company for making it. But we remain somewhat troubled by Apple’s paternalistic tone and the implications implicit in it. Apple’s Williams said, “When a repair is needed, a customer should have confidence the repair is done right.”
That’s also true, but it’s none of Apple’s business unless Apple is doing the repair. If I choose to take my iPhone to an independent repair shop that is clearly not affiliated with Apple, the relationship is between that repair shop and me, and Apple is not a party to it. If I’m unhappy with the repair, it would be unreasonable to assume it was Apple’s fault in any way, and I’d take it up with the repair shop.
It’s just like with cars. Most of the time, I choose to have my Nissan Leaf serviced by a local independent mechanic who I trust more than the nearby dealer. I don’t need or want Nissan involved with general maintenance like having the brakes done. But for concerns related to the fact that it’s an electric car, I’d be happy to take it to the Nissan dealer so they could bring their proprietary tools and expertise to bear. (Happily, being an electric car with many fewer moving parts and fewer fluids, it hasn’t suffered from as many issues as the gas cars we’ve owned.)