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Rotten Apple: Right to Repair Roundup

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. Last week, iFixit reported on Apple’s latest salvo against the right to repair: By activating a dormant software lock on their newest iPhones, Apple is effectively announcing a drastic new policy: only Apple batteries can go in iPhones, and only they can install them. If you replace the battery in the newest iPhones, a message indicating you need to service your battery appears in Settings > Battery, next to Battery Health. The “Service” message is normally an indication that the battery is degraded and needs to be replaced. The message still shows up when you put in a brand new battery, however. Here’s the bigger problem: our lab tests confirmed

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Last week, iFixit reported on Apple’s latest salvo against the right to repair:

By activating a dormant software lock on their newest iPhones, Apple is effectively announcing a drastic new policy: only Apple batteries can go in iPhones, and only they can install them.

If you replace the battery in the newest iPhones, a message indicating you need to service your battery appears in Settings > Battery, next to Battery Health. The “Service” message is normally an indication that the battery is degraded and needs to be replaced. The message still shows up when you put in a brand new battery, however. Here’s the bigger problem: our lab tests confirmed that even when you swap in a genuine Apple battery, the phone will still display the “Service” message.

It’s not a bug; it’s a feature Apple wants. Unless an Apple Genius or an Apple Authorized Service Provider authenticates a battery to the phone, that phone will never show its battery health and always report a vague, ominous problem.

There are many concerns the Apple policy raises – some of which I have discussed before (see Design Genius Jony Ive Leaves Apple, Leaving Behind Crapified Products That Cannot Be Repaired).

I want to focus on one practical problem here: the dearth of Apple stores to conduct these repairs. This is a problem outside major US cities, as I understand there are big chunks of the US that lack Apple stores. This means people who live in these areas must now either schlep to an Apple store – or ship their iPhone – when they need a simple battery change (unless they are prepared to ignore bogus error messages). Uh huh.

The problem extends outside the US, too, as some astute commentators on the iFixit post have noted:

You don’t understand problem broadly enough. There are only few Apple Stores in the world. Apple is officially selling iPhones in European countries where they don’t have official service points. Support is only available as mail-in where even battery change can take from 1 to 4 weeks. You cannot even have loan phone from Apple.

Niko Salonen

Hahahahaha! So if 10% of people want to repair their 1500 dollar phone themselves, screw them? How about if it’s 15% of owners? 20%? Where do you draw the line? This doesn’t even mention the areas where Apple doesn’t have any physical stores. Would you want to wait WEEKS for your insanely high prices supposedly premium device to come back damaged from shipping because some teen in a woefully underpaid job didn’t pack it correctly?

Why not go write some Apple propaganda for them? I’m sure you’d be good at it.

Devon Lasher

And the phenomenon isn’t confined to Europe, but also affects Asia  – as I once discovered when the keyboard on my MacBook Pro stopped working. I happened to be passing through Sri Lanka – which, IIRC, had an official Mac repair facility. Alas, repairing my device required a replacement part, which had to be ordered and shipped from Singapore, and I didn’t want to linger in Colombo to await its arrival.

So I continued on my itinerary, and travelled to Kolkata. At that time, there were no official Mac stores in India, and the basic repair was going to take weeks – and leave me without the use of my computer. I coped by rigging up an external keyboard. But in other situations where I’ve needed to have my MacBook attended to whilst in India, I’ve relied on third-party repair services.

Sayonara MacBook Pro

Apple seems to be doubling down on its hostile policy toward third-party or DIY repair. As Vice reports:

…this move by Apple is the latest in a long string of actions that have made it more difficult for independent repair companies to work on its products. For example, the latest line of MacBook Pros has a software kill switch that has the ability to essentially end third-party repair.

Now, I’m not sure that Apple has thus far triggered that kill switch. But they can do so at any time. I’m mulling replacing my MacBook Pro. The crapification of Apple laptops – including the elimination of the MagSafe and the problematic butterfly keyboard – means that I cannot see my way to paying up to replace my MacBook with another MacBook. Knowing Apple has incorporated such a software kill switch combined with the company’s latest action on iPhone battery replacements adds up to a dealbreaker for me, especially as I spend much of my time far away from places that have a local Apple store.

Other Right to Repair Developments

I don’t want to close with my musings on Apple, so instead will note in passing some recent positive developments on the right to repair front.

First, the Federal Trade Commission last month conducted  a workshop, Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions. I wanted to write up this event at the time, but didn’t, as I was travelling  and had some computer issues that made it impossible to listen to a livestream of the event and to check in with the subsequent conference call arranged by right to repair advocates.

The issue is clearly on the FTC’s agenda- and the skeptic in me worries that opponents may exploit this interest either to thwart a right to repair – or to co-opt the issue and enshrine a “right” that hurts rather than helps consumers. So far, right to repair initiatives have arisen at the state level; this is the first time the federal government has taken up this issue, according to Wired:

At the heart of the issue lies the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, passed by Congress in 1975. The act was written in response to “widespread consumer dissatisfaction with both the content and performance of warranty obligations,” according to Fordham Law Review.

In short, it’s the law that governs consumer product warranties, and it prevents manufacturers — from automakers to tablet makers — from denying warranty coverage on a conditional basis. Manufacturers can’t void the warranty on a product just because the consumer went and repaired it themself, swapped parts, or had it fixed by a third party.

Just because the law prevents manufacturers from voiding a warranty on the grounds that a consumer used a third party to make a repair doesn’t prevent manufacturers from attempting to do just that. According to Wired:

But some manufacturers still use language suggesting that your warranty will be voided. Last April the FTC sent warning letters to six major companies: Asus, Hyundai, HTC, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. (Vice first obtained the list of manufacturers by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act.) In some cases, as with Microsoft’s Xbox One warranty, the language is just iffy enough to butt up against the law. Others are more explicit, like HTC, which applies stickers stating, “The limited warranty shall not apply if the warranty seal (void label) has been removed.”

Then, in October of last year, the nonprofit US Public Interest Research Group published a report that said 45 out of 50 companies surveyed still void warranty coverage in the case of independent repair. These companies, all members of the Association of Home Appliances Manufacturers, include Breville, Dyson, Haier, Hisense, LG Electronics, Philips Electronics, and Samsung Electronics America….

Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have championed a right to repair for farm equipment, and the NYT editorial board is also on-board. So, depending on how 2020 plays out, a right to repair may pop up on the federal agenda – although at present, activity remains concentrated at the state level, where about 20 states have introduced relevant legislation.

Take Massachusetts, for example – a right to repair bellwether. After voters approved an auto right to repair ballot question in the 2012 general election, the state adopted a statute mandating that vehicle owners and independent repair facilities in Massachusetts would enjoy access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information provided to the manufacturers’ Massachusetts dealers and authorized repair facilities. Once the cat was out of the bag in Massachusetts, manufacturers disseminated the information nationwide.

According to an op-ed in the Watertown Wicked Local, discussing a new MASSPIRG report:

Massachusetts residents are, in fact, very interested in repairing their broken devices. The report calculates that, in 2018, 1.6 million Bay Staters – nearly 1 in 4 Massachusetts residents – used the website iFixit.com as a free guide to fix their broken electronic devices. Evidently, consumer repair is in high demand.

Two pieces of right to repair legislation are pending in Massachusetts. Perhaps the state will lead the way on enacting a broad right to repair, as it did before with respect to auto repairs.

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