The Fix Is In

Kevin Purdy, Ars Technica:

Ricky Panesar, CEO of UK repair firm iCorrect, told Forbes that screens replaced on newer iPad Pros (fifth and sixth-generation 12.9-inch and third and fourth-generation 11-inch models) do not deliver straight lines when an Apple Pencil is used to draw at an angle. “They have a memory chip that sits on the screen that’s programmed to only allow the Pencil functionality to work if the screen is connected to the original logic board,” Panesar told Forbes.

A Reddit post from May 23 from a user reporting “jittery” diagonal lines from an Apple Pencil on a newly replaced iPad mini screen suggests the issue may affect more than just the Pro line of iPads.

Usually I would point you to the original source — in this case, Forbes — rather than a rewrite, but I made an exception for the author of this Ars piece. If you recognize the name “Kevin Purdy”, it could be because he used to work for iFixit, which is acknowledged in this article.

At iFixit, Purdy was responsible for repeatedly claiming Apple was sabotaging device repairs, citing as evidence the inability to swap the camera between iPhone 12 units and the Face ID system between iPhone 13s. Unofficial iPhone 11 display swaps showed a message saying the display was not genuine and, importantly, True Tone also could not be enabled. And now we have this iPad and Apple Pencil issue to add to the list.

One thing all of these features — synchronicity between the Pencil and iPad screen, Face ID, cameras, and True Tone — have in common is that they are features which require precise coordination between hardware and software. Different parts perform differently, even if they were made by the same company in the same factory at the same time. Apple achieves a level of uniform behaviour on its devices through a proprietary calibration process.

I find Purdy’s analysis of these issues to be frustratingly shallow and lacking. Every time one of these parts calibration problems arises, Purdy immediately ascribes it to a deliberate repair lockout strategy, even though software updates have ensured these parts remain functional and have even fixed some problems spotted by iFixit. iOS 14.4 corrected camera problems for iPhone 12 models with swapped modules and iOS 15.2 re-enabled Face ID for screen-swapped iPhone 13s. In general, I feel that a warning in Settings that a screen or camera is not an official part is a fair way to notify users about what is going on in the mystery box of electronic wizardry they are holding, especially since the iPhone resale market is stronger than phones from any other company by a huge margin, and some of the components for which Apple requires calibration are for security features like Touch ID and Face ID.

The problem I have with a Machiavellian explanation for Apple’s repair idiosyncrasies is that it does not address the actual problems created by its decisions about device construction and maintenance. Hector Martin put it well:

You need to stop pushing these ridiculous conspiracy theories and instead focus on reality: these machines are complex, their production is complex, their repair is complex, and just swapping parts around willy nilly may not result in a quality result, and that is *normal*. Advocate for Apple to provide access to their calibration re-provisioning processes instead, so you can actually get things set up properly and working as intended by the manufacturer. Them not providing those tools sucks and is anti-repair. The product engineering that requires those tools for a proper outcome is not.

From the perspective of users, it does not matter whether Apple is actively making it harder to repair devices or if that is a side effect of other priorities. And, from the perspective of activists and policymakers, I am not sure it makes much difference either. If hardware and software need to go through some process to become better acquainted with one another and work properly, that is fine by me. If it is all a ruse, that sucks, but ultimately is not relevant.

People should be able to swap screens and batteries — at the very least — without having to find a specifically authorized technician with provisioned access to some internal Apple tool. Not every Apple device owner lives in a big city in a rich country, where Apple’s network of technicians is concentrated. The software should be part of the toolkit available to anyone repairing their device outside the Apple Authorized Service Provider channels.

In fact, that is not too far off from what Apple has been doing. In addition to making parts and tools available and improving device repairability, it recently announced it would be making the System Configuration step entirely self-guided. This is progress. Even so, I see room for improvement. The self-service program is currently offered through a website that looks barely legitimate, let alone connected to Apple, is something the company only offers in a handful of countries which does not currently include Canada, and can alter or stop providing it at any time. Good public policy could ensure most common repairs can be done by anyone who is inclined, with quality parts and tools made available.

Barring evidence proving otherwise, I am not convinced Apple’s final software calibration step is some kind of evil manoeuvre to subvert repairs and kneecap its products. Framing it in those terms is a distraction from effective right-to-repair activism. I am not someone who believes Apple cannot do bad things; any regular reader is well aware of that. But I do believe these kinds of motivations demand proof beyond typical and fair suspicion of big corporations.