SHANGHAI – Imagine if Ford remotely disabled the engine on your new F-150 pickup because you chose to have the door locks fixed at a corner garage rather than a dealership. Sound absurd? Not if you’re Apple.
Since 2014, the world’s most profitable smartphone company has — without warning — permanently disabled some iPhones that had their home buttons replaced by repair shops in the course of fixing a shattered screen. Phones that underwent the same repair at Apple service centers, meanwhile, have continued working just fine.
The message seems clear, at least to the multibillion-dollar independent repair industry: Your phone is yours until you decide to get it fixed. Then it’s Apple’s.
Apple says it was merely trying to keep the iPhones “secure,” and that “Error 53″ — the code that pops up after the company bricks a unit — is meant to ensure that nobody messes with the phone’s fingerprint sensor. Whatever the intent, the company now finds itself amid a PR and legal debacle that could upend the lucrative business of servicing gadgets worldwide.
The root of that debacle dates to 2009, when Apple started using proprietary screws in MacBooks, and later iPhones, to keep DIY types from making simple fixes or souping up their systems. Although repair shops eventually obtained compatible screwdrivers (by making them), the episode illustrated how paranoid Apple can be about anyone tinkering with its products: Among other things, it refuses to release repair manuals for its devices, maintains a stranglehold on spare parts, won’t share information on diagnostic equipment and software, and isn’t even accepting applications for new authorized service providers. All of which suggests that it wants to curtail consumer choice in favor of its own services.
That’s not a unique business model, of course. For decades, auto manufacturers and dealerships have done their best to undermine independent garages by limiting access to original parts and diagnostic tools. The results, in both industries, are predictable: Repair shops have to turn away willing customers, and consumers lose the benefits of free competition, notably lower prices and more convenience.
In 2000, under threat of “right to repair” legislation, U.S. automakers, dealerships and service shops formed a union to share information on repairing today’s high-tech cars. Because membership was voluntary, however, there was little incentive to cough up any useful data, especially in a prompt manner.
Massachusetts took matters a step further in 2012 when it required manufacturers to provide the same information and tools to repair shops as they do to dealerships. Fearful that other states would follow, the automakers agreed to make the law a binding standard by 2018. That means authorized service departments will soon have to compete on price — handing a big win to consumers.
So far, there’s nothing similar for the electronics business. But Apple’s aggressive approach to controlling information may change that. Several states are taking a hard look at legislation that would require tech companies to share repair data and sell parts at fair prices.
Needless to say, Apple could fix this problem on its own. It could offer tools and spare parts to independent shops at market rates, form an association with its competitors to encourage information sharing, and even push for a certification standard to ensure quality repairs. Doing so would not be in Apple’s DNA, of course. But it might ease public outrage, mollify newly attentive regulators, appease customers at a time when sales are slipping and — not incidentally — forestall a wave of class-action lawsuits.
More to the point, if Apple’s executives don’t address the problem, lawmakers will do so for them. And that would be no bad thing: Apple’s service centers might suffer for it, but its customers — and their phones — will only benefit.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.