With the release of the iPhone 14 last year came many plaudits for Apple, mainly for making the phone itself more ‘repairable’ than its predecessors. While repair to the devices had become more straightforward, increased complexities about who could make such repairs also arose.
The main issue is centred on the repair of a broken or malfunctioning iPhone 14 ‘Always-On Display’ (AOD), which uses the phone’s two ambient light sensors to calibrate display brightness. In order to conserve battery life, when at night or when the phone is in your pocket, the display will shut down, leveraging the phone’s automatic brightness capabilities. If the display of an iPhone 14 breaks, and an Apple-authorised service centre is not used to replace it however, the ambient light sensors shuts down, leaving the screen permanently black unless you can remember the position of the slider, leaving the brightness of the phone to only be adjusted manually.
The cause of this failure is Apple’s policy of ‘Parts Pairing’, tying individual components to the phones that carry them. A component such as the screen of an iPhone 14 will have a unique ID logged in its hardware that the iPhone checks for whenever it is started. As far as the phone is concerned, it will only work properly if it has its ‘own’ display attached. If the device’s own display is not detected, it won’t work. Users will instead see error messages urging them to go to their local Apple support technician. These messages do not ultimately persist, but the device will be permanently marked as hosting unauthorised components.
The only way to prevent this is for an Apple-authorised technician to manually sanction the pairing of a new component with your device with an in-house software tool; a process that requires a technician connecting to Apple’s private network over the internet, for which access has to be granted by the company themselves.
The result of this is that repair stores outside of Apple’s own network will soon be left unable to make repairs on any new iPhones. The costs of joining Apple’s network of authorised technicians and having access to pair new components with existing phones, however, are high enough to cause many businesses to have had second thoughts about doing so.
Apple has long been resistant to the idea that consumers should be able to fix their own products, with them previously withholding repairing manuals and spare parts from third party technicians, in spite of the numbers of iPhones that require basic repairs.
Now though, Apple state that a position of compromise has been reached, with them allowing third party technicians to repair certain Apple products if they become verified service providers. Additionally, individuals can fix their own devices as part of the self-service repair programme, where Apple would make tools parts and manuals available to users (if you had the ability to take delivery of approx. 35kg of the required tools, and paid the approx. £1000 deposit to ensure the tools are returned in seven days).
Therefore, the issue remains – is it fair to own a product, but still have the manufacturer control the repairs and functionality of it?
Both in Europe and the US, there is a strong push for ‘Right to Repair’ legislation to be introduced, allowing consumers to choose how and where they repair their owned devices. Further promising news for those backing the ‘Right to Repair’ movement, the US Federal Trade Commission has also recently enforced similar legislation that sees manufacturers from using warranty provisions to prevent owners seeking independent repair for their products; with the EU also looking to lay down robust right to repair provisions with the Ecodesign provisions, ensuring devices sold are more repairable, and having a specific focus on repair operations by end users.
While strategies like this from Apple may ensure they maximise the value of their IP, such actions may ultimately serve to accelerate governments into taking action, such as with the Right to Repair initiative in the US, and Ecodesign directive currently in its infancy with the EU; with any such initiatives also potentially having an impact on patent infringement law around the world.