Apple Says a Software Update Will Let Indie Repair Shops Swap iPhone 13 Displays

After iFixit explored the components of the new iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro models, it tried making some standard repairs. It found that simply swapping one phone’s screen with the genuine display from another caused Face ID to stop working. This is due to a new serial number chip within the screen, which can be logged by software at Apple-authorized repair shops and the company’s own stores, but which is not available to unaffiliated repairers or device owners.

That sucks, since iPhone displays get replaced by independent shops all the time. Happily, the company tells the Verge that it will issue a software update permitting screen replacement.

What I found interesting is how this story has been framed. Kevin Purdy of iFixit:

It’s hard to believe, after years of repair-blocking issues with Touch ID, batteries, and cameras, that Apple’s latest iPhone part lock-out is accidental. As far as our engineers can tell, keeping Face ID working on the iPhone 13 after a screen swap should be easier than ever, since its scanner is wholly separate from the display. Technically, yes: Face ID failure could be a very specific hardware bug for one of the most commonly replaced components, one that somehow made it through testing, didn’t get fixed in a major software update, and just happens to lock out the kind of independent repair from which the company doesn’t profit.

More likely, though, is that this is a strategy, not an oversight. This situation makes AppleCare all but required for newer iPhones, unless you happen to know that your local repair shop is ready for the challenge. Or you simply plan to never drop your phone.

If today’s announcement from Apple pans out, I see Purdy’s speculation as more of the kind of fear mongering that makes it hard for me to trust iFixit and other right-to-repair advocates. Last year, Purdy hyped up problems with iPhone 12 camera swaps as “the end of the repairable iPhone”, but the problem was fixed in a January software update. As I wrote then, the problem is almost certainly not a deliberate tactic by Apple, and instead reveals that the company prioritizes its own stores when considering device repairability.

The Verge chose to run this news today under the headline “Apple Backs Off of Breaking Face ID After DIY iPhone 13 Screen Replacements”. The “backs off” suggests this was a deliberate move by Apple to prevent independent shops’ repairs and it is reversing course, perhaps because of bad publicity. Again, this ascribes a motivation I do not believe you can see in available evidence. It is obviously a deliberate move for Apple to serialize displays and pair them to specific Face ID modules, but one could also assume this is because the displays and Face ID modules are now separate, and this pairing step is for security or calibration purposes.

Like last year, I feel compelled to mention that I support right-to-repair legislation. It makes complete sense for iPhone owners to get a new battery swapped or get their display fixed without having to bring their phone to an Apple Store or through an Apple-connected support channel. Given how essential the smartphone is, all of them should support easier repairs. Apple could do better and it should do better. Adequate repair legislation would require this software update to be released before the iPhone 13 could be offered for sale, for example, and ensure common repairs can be completed on new products. These are real concerns that can be addressed with care and sober thought.

Until something like that becomes reality, I think iFixit should ease off its doom and gloom narrative. Pointing out that iPhone 12 camera modules cannot be swapped, and the same for iPhone 13 displays, ought to be enough without inserting a more fictional narrative.