The House Judiciary Committee opened an investigation into Apple’s policies back in September with an eye toward anticompetitive practices, including repairs and warranties. An Apple VP has responded (PDF) and some of their answers are a doozy. Here’s our response.
In addition to their questions, Congress’ antitrust subcommittee also subpoenaed emails from Apple, as well as from Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (a.k.a. Google). The majority of the probe centers around software lock-in, market share, and app store practices. But the most interesting questions put to Apple are about subjects we’re pretty familiar with: batterygate, third-party repair and Apple’s new program for it, and their pact with Amazon to remove third-party refurbishers.
Apple’s on-the-record responses (PDF) were written by an attorney, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation, expert question-dodging, and at least one flat-out incorrect statement we can spot. Let’s dig in.
The first sixteen questions relate to software functions of mobile devices. The shortest summary of Apple’s responses is: We can’t offer our users much choice, because nobody designs their software as thoughtfully as we do, and some of our favorite features can’t be ported out to other browsers or apps. Questions 12 through 16 are odd and fun, if you want to witness Congress’ quixotic quest to get Apple to admit that Google Maps is better.
The good stuff, however, comes after that. We’ll hop around a bit, because some of the questions fit together in non-sequential groups.
Our Manuals Could Make Repairs Safer, But You Can’t Have Them
17. Why does Apple prevent independent repair stores from accessing many of Apple’s spare parts and repair manuals? Isn’t this just a way for Apple to elbow out competition and extend its monopoly into the market for repairs?
This strikes at the heart of the reason iFixit exists. We got started because Apple wasn’t making service manuals available to anyone but their techs.
Apple answers the question we’ve been chasing for the last fifteen years, “Why prevent access to repair content?” with: Our content makes repairs safer and easier. Which is not only not an answer, it also seems to be a very solid reason to distribute parts and manuals. In Apple’s mind, there’s a straight line between untrained techs and unsafe repair, which is a dubious claim to be sure–but if they believe it, shouldn’t they be trying to prevent that danger, not exacerbate it?
The charitable view is that this close-to-the-vest practice can be chalked up to Apple’s obsession with vertical integration of the customer experience. But that hasn’t really panned out. The web is rife with stories of customers seeking simple repairs from Apple, only to be told that expensive sprawling assemblies must be swapped out under Apple’s policies. Being able to set the price of parts and repairs, and determine what’s worth repairing, certainly makes Apple’s safety concerns conveniently lucrative.
Apple Does Try to Block Third-Party Repairs
Next up, let’s talk about Apple’s forums.
19. Does Apple take any actions to block consumers from seeking out or using repair shops that offer a broader range of repairs than those offered by authorized technicians? If yes, describe each action that Apple takes and the reason for doing so.
Apple’s answer is, essentially, no. In full: “Apple does not take any actions to block consumers from seeking out or using repair shops that offer a broader range of repairs than those offered by Apple’s authorized technicians. Customers are free to obtain repairs from any repair shop of their choice.”
Apple’s answer is false.
Our clarification: It’s possible Apple policy may not block you, but the average Apple employee doesn’t mind advising against repair, over-estimating the cost, or silencing recommendations on support forums.
But it’s not just the rank-and-file who are censoring repair options. Apple corporate isn’t so silent either. If you try to replace Touch ID, a newer battery, a new screen, or parts inside a Mac with a T2 chip you’ll be greeted with alarming pop-ups warning of incompatibility and lost functionality. If that isn’t intended to delegitimize third-party repair and undermine customer confidence, what is? Bricking repaired phones? Oh wait, they’ve done that too.
Apple’s lawyer lost a lot of credibility with that half-truth-verging-on-a-lie. Let’s see where they go next.
The Fuzzy Financials of Fixing
21. For each year since 2009, please identify the total revenue that Apple derived from repair services.
Apple: “For each year since 2009, the costs of providing repair services has exceeded the revenue generated by repairs.”
Unsurprisingly, most media outlets are a bit taken aback by this statement, including BBC, Engadget, PCMag, and, with quotes from Right to Repair advocates, Vice’s Motherboard. In addition to the sticker shock familiar to anybody who’s asked after Apple repairs ($280 iPhone X screens, $600 ribbon cable replacements pre-Flexgate, $1,200 MacBook board repairs), there’s the complicating cost of Apple’s self-inflicted recalls: low-cost batterygate replacements, the keyboard service program, and the like.
Apple’s annual reports state that the company spent $4.1 billion on warranty claims in 2018. The company set aside just under $4 billion for those costs, anticipating an average amount of warranty service for every device sold. Elsewhere, Apple claims $24 billion in net revenue from “Services,” which includes AppleCare, but also the App Store, iCloud, Apple Music, and lots of other stuff. Does Apple count underutilized AppleCare subscriptions as “revenue generated by repairs?” We don’t know.
An Apple attorney, responding on the record to Congress, is stating some kind of truth here. But almost nobody can double-check the math without knowing what constitutes repair revenue and cost. As Warranty Week puts it, Apple’s warranty cost estimate: “[P]rovides no details about the calculations it makes, or how [its] estimates are made. Nor does it reveal any information about the average historical or projected cost per claim. It just merely says they exist.”
At iFixit, we have some experience with pricing out repair parts and estimating the labor costs involved with repair. When you factor in AppleCare revenue, new devices that were bought instead of fixed, and the unknowable math of their warranty accounting, it’s hard for us to believe they lose money. Independent repair shops make money on repairs and charge significantly less than through Apple.
Enough fake math. Let’s talk repairs!
The Repairs Apple Won’t Even Try
18. What types of repairs does Apple prevent its authorized technicians from making on Apple devices and what are the reasons for doing so?
22. Apple has created a network of Apple Authorized Service Providers (AASPs) to make Apple-certified repairs. Please provide a full list of repairs that Apple permits AASPs to make on Apple products.
23. Does Apple limit the repairs it permits AASPs to make? If so, please provide a full list of the repairs that AASPs are not permitted to make and explain all the reasons Apple does not permit each type of repair.
AASPs can perform the same repairs as Apple Store techs, but the real issue is how limited the repair menu is, and Apple’s questionable concept of what counts as a “repair.” Apple only offers a limited menu of repairs, performing a few select procedures in-store and a few more through mail-in service—an inconvenient and often expensive option for customers.
Apple rather conveniently sidesteps the actual question of number 18, declining to list the repairs that they won’t attempt at all. Those no-can-do answers from Apple reps are a big reason folks turn to the independent repair market—shops can almost always beat the time, price, and ability of Apple’s repair service.
Responding to question 22, Apple claims it can perform memory and solid-state drive repairs on “Mac Portables.” Maybe for 2012 models and earlier, which Apple now considers “vintage,” making repair subject to parts availability. For newer models, listing those items, along with Touch ID, as a distinct “repair” Apple can perform is disingenuous. Those components all require the same solution: a complete motherboard replacement. They prescribe a heart transplant for a common flu.
The response to question 23 contains some absolutely incredible lines. Only Apple can, with a straight face, claim that they offer “repair services through refunds or replacements” on some devices. Similar to how, in middle school, I would perform homework services by faking sick the next day.
Apple does this, they claim, because “it is not possible to reliably repair some products because it is not feasible to split products into its (sic) component parts without significant risk of damage to those components.” That is certainly true, as our repairability ratings of Apple’s recent products demonstrate. You can’t fix AirPods because Apple designed them to be disposable.
Meanwhile, HP seems to be making thin, repairable products just fine. Microsoft has even jumped on the repairability bandwagon.
24. If a customer seeks a repair that an AASP will not make and the customer then seeks that same repair from an unauthorized technician, will Apple refuse repair services to that customer in the future? If yes, explain all the reasons why Apple refuses access to future repair services.
In response to questions 24-27, Apple states that it will not refuse repairs if it detects work by “unauthorized” technicians. This is by-and-large true, but has not always been the case. Apple only recently started following the law that they ignored for years.
It gets tricky and it-depends-y in these answers, however. Answer 25 states that Apple will not refuse repair based on repair history, but 24 cites potential service denial to devices in which “certain original components” have been replaced with non-original components. Apple also states that it “may not provide” repair when the cost would be greater than replacement—it’s up to them, then?
Enough about repair services, let’s talk about parts!
Customers Can’t Be Trusted with These Great Parts
28. Which Apple spare or replacement parts does Apple make available for purchase by customers who may want to repair products themselves or hire an independent technician?
Apple: Apple has launched an independent repair provider program. As noted above, we currently only support sole proprietors and repair providers who conduct repairs as a business, and not individuals.
“Sole proprietors and repair providers who conduct repairs as a business” means no recyclers, no large-scale refurbishers (neither of whom work in retail settings). It means no repair-from-home moms. It means no remote island-inhabitors. It means no one unwilling to sign an extensive non-disclosure agreement. It means no hobbyist tinkerers, or curious teens, or those wanting to keep their personal data to themselves during repair. It means not you.
Offering the same tools, guides, and parts to individuals as to authorized providers and repair shops is a crucial part of right to repair legislation. Nobody, not even repair shops, should have a monopoly on information that extends the life of devices people purchase. Those devices, the planet, and you deserve that. And that’s worth fighting for, no matter if Apple says they’ve got it covered.