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  • Apple and the Right to Repair

    March 9th, 2018

    It should seem simple enough. You have a mobile tech gadget that needs a new battery or a repair. You take it to a shop and, when it’s ready, you pick it up and hand over your credit card. Or cash if you’re so inclined. Indeed when my son visited us from his home in Madrid during early 2017, he brought with him an well-worn iPhone 5c with a failing battery. I suggested he replace it, and the cell phone concession at a nearby Walmart offered to do the deed for $39, then $40 less than Apple’s price.

    He was tempted  but opted to save his money and get a new phone when the battery stopped sustaining a charge for more than a few hours.

    Now that repair shop handles all sorts of smartphone and notebook PC repairs. I’m not at all certain how well they do, other than the fact that most of these repairs shouldn’t be rocket science. A repair person from a nearby battery/bulb shop, while one of my Uber passengers, described the process of repacking an iPhone battery. It usually takes 10-15 minutes from power down, replacement to power on. “Piece of cake,” he smiled.

    Except that if you want a genuine Apple part, with a factory warranty. You can’t visit one of those repair shops. They are not authorized to fix Apple gear, they do not possess Apple’s repair tools, product manuals or access to the correct parts.

    It does’t mean they can’t do the job acceptably, but if the right front door of your new car was smashed to smithereens in an accident, would you want the body shop to replace it with a genuine part from the factory, or something fabricated in a third world sweat shop to reduce costs to the insurance company? Not that I have many accidents, but when I do, it’s OEM all the way.

    I’m not so worried about the battery or the tires, but I’d also be concerned about such critical components as the engine, transmission and emission control system. All right, some enthusiasts prefer custom parts to soup up their vehicles, but still.

    But what about your iPhone? Why can’t you have anybody replace the battery with a factory-approved part? Well, if it’s an Apple Store or an authorized dealer, you can. They have the training and equipment to to do the job in accordance with Apple’s standards.

    However, an independent repair shop can’t get the same training and access unless they sign up to become an authorized Apple dealer, assuming any slots are available. If you’re not authorized, Apple doesn’t have to deal with you and, in fact, they don’t have to honor the repair warranty, which means they have the authority to void it if they want.

    That takes us to a series of laws being proposed in different U.S. states called “right to repair,” which would require Apple and other tech companies to provide customers and third-party shops with full access to repair documentation, diagnostic/repair tools and parts. You got the money, they have to make them available.

    California state legislators are preparing to introduce what is called, naturally, the California Right to Repair Act, thus joining 17 other states considering similar bills.

    According to one of the legislators, “The Right to Repair Act will provide consumers with the freedom to have their electronic products and appliances fixed by a repair shop or service provider of their choice, a practice that was taken for granted a generation ago but is now becoming increasingly rare in a world of planned obsolescence.”

    Now Apple has always had a mixed relationship with repair facilities. No problem if you deal with Apple’s factory or authorized stores. But many products are difficult and often impossible to repair, according to iFixit.com. This is especially troublesome with Macs. You expect difficulty dealing with the tiny components of a smartphone or a tablet. If it’s not a place sanctioned by Apple, you’re on your own.

    But what about a personal computer, once presumed to be mostly upgradeable without much difficulty? Nowadays, the only Macs easily upgraded are the legacy 2013 Mac Pro and the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display — and then only for RAM. If you want a new drive on the iMac, you have to pry off the adhesive that holds the glass to the chassis. Surprisingly enough, you have to undergo essentially the same ordeal if you want to upgrade the ECC RAM on an iMac Pro. The 21.5-inch iMac is similarly hostile to RAM upgrades.

    Don’t worry about replacing RAM on a Mac notebook. It’s soldiered to the logic board. What this means is that, with the few desktop exceptions above, you have to buy a Mac with the expectation that no component will ever be changed unless it needs to be repaired. To Apple, it’s just a bigger iPhone when it comes to upgradeability.

    Now Right to Repair doesn’t mean that more Macs will become upgradeable. That’s a design decision. What it does mean is that anyone who cares to take on the task will be able to do such repairs using genuine Apple parts, tools and instructions. Obviously if you fix it yourself, you’ll be responsible if you break something, and independent repair shops will have to guarantee their own work; Apple will only be responsible for its parts.

    But it may equalize the playing field and allow you to get more useful life out of your tech gear, not to mention reduce your repair bills. However, it won’t encourage Apple to design Macs to be more amenable to upgrades. Clearly enough customers aren’t complaining for that shortcoming to be dealt with.



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