Impeding Device Repairs Through Parts Pairing

Tripp Mickle, Ella Koeze, and Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

But since 2017, iPhone repairs have been a minefield. New batteries can trigger warning messages, replacement screens can disable a phone’s brightness settings, and substitute selfie cameras can malfunction.

The breakdowns are an outgrowth of Apple’s practice of writing software that gives it control over iPhones even after someone has bought one. Unlike cars, which can be repaired with generic parts by auto shops and do-it-yourself mechanics, new iPhones are coded to recognize the serial numbers for original components and may malfunction if the parts are changed.

But not all parts in all cars can be replaced with generic components, as these reporters later gesture at:

Using software to control repairs has become commonplace across electronics, appliances and heavy machinery as faster chips and cheaper memory turn everyday products into miniature computers. HP has used a similar practice to encourage people to buy its ink cartridges over lower-priced alternatives. Tesla has incorporated it into many cars. And John Deere has put it in farm equipment, disabling machines that aren’t fixed by company repair workers.

Tesla apparently builds its standard and long range cars with the same battery, and reduces the range of the less expensive cars in software. And, in a letter to Canadian officials (PDF), Tesla defended locking information down from some independent repair technicians on the basis of safety. But it is not the only auto manufacturer engaged in software-based limitations. Recent FCA vehicles have a “security gateway module” that prevents some diagnostic messages from being read by unauthorized users. Authorized users — in the cases of both FCA and Tesla — are required to pay up to each of those companies for access.

So long as everything we use moves closer to becoming a computer, this problem will grow because some legislation does not explicitly prohibit it while other laws have loopholes. Right to repair advocates and the Times have framed this as a financial issue. But I am not sure that is the case; as I have written before, it is much more likely that these companies simply do not prioritize repairability. To be clear, that is not an excuse. If anything, I think that is even worse; it implies a lack of caring in how something is built if it is not made with repair in mind. Remember Apple’s butterfly keyboard? Shipping a faulty family of keyboards for years was bad enough, but it was made a fiasco because of how it was assembled — it was often easier to replace the entire top case of an affected laptop, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, instead of changing individual keys.

To be fair, Apple also seems like it wants to take this more seriously than it used to, by making it easier to do common repairs on the iPhone, and its configuration process is done entirely by customers when using its Self-Service Repair website. But it should be possible to use this tool with authentic parts harvested from a different iPhone, too. This should be mandated across all industries. Most people do not buy things with an understanding of how they were built and how to fix them. Better legislation for third-party repair support would consider this for all kinds of products.