Apple may have made a U-turn on the right to repair, but the battle is far from over. The growing practice of parts pairing – something which has been increasingly adopted by the iPhone maker – is coming under increasing fire.
Requiring components to be individually linked to the serial numbers of specific devices is proving a major barrier to affordable third-party and DIY repair. The EU is already considering a ban on parts pairing, and right to repair campaigners are pushing for this in the US too …
A short history of Apple and right to repair
The right to repair is a movement which argues that consumers ought to have the right to repair their own products – rather than be forced to pay Apple and other brands for expensive official repairs, or, worse, consign devices to landfill because a repair isn’t economic.
Apple company has spent literally years fighting right to repair legislation, spending money to lobby against it at both state and federal level, either trying to block it altogether or – if it couldn’t manage that – to weaken the legislation as much as possible.
It continued to do so despite the company’s co-founder urging it to reconsider, pointing out that the company started out selling kits which people built for themselves.
Apple’s U-turn started with the launch of a Self Service Repair program back in 2021, initially in California, and now nationally. Alongside this, the company stopped opposing right to repair laws and instead started actively supporting them.
We welcomed this, not just for its impact on Apple customers, but also because it set an example which other companies were likely to follow. However, things didn’t end there – with further controversy over a practice known as parts pairing, or serialization.
Parts pairing is where the serial number of a component (like a screen) is digitally paired to the serial number of the iPhone itself. Even if you swap one genuine Apple component for another, the repair won’t fully work because the pairing won’t match.
With the iPhone 13, for example, a screen-swap would cause Face ID to stop working.
iFixit last year downgraded its repairability rating of the iPhone 14 for this reason.
iFixit didn’t initially ding Apple for parts pairing, because if you buy a replacement part direct from Apple, and tell the company the serial number of your phone, they will reset the pairing so that it works.
However, consumers and independent repair shops pointed out that a common way to achieve affordable repairs is to harvest parts from broken iPhones. If you do this, you have to hope that Apple will agree to reset the pairing in a chat, or the repaired device may not work properly. Or even if it does, it will display annoying messages.
The next right to repair battleground
A lengthy piece in The Verge suggests that parts pairing is likely to be the next focus for right to repair campaigners. First, because it makes repairs more difficult – and the problem is getting worse. iFixit says that the iPhone 15 has the greatest number of issues of any iPhone to date.
Tests on a 15 Pro Max revealed that swapping the screen without using Apple’s System Configuration tool causes Face ID, True Tone, and auto brightness to stop working, while swapping the battery causes a non-genuine part warning message to appear, and the phone stops displaying battery health data […] The 15 Pro Max’s rear lidar assembly, essential for using augmented reality apps, also doesn’t function when transplanted into a new phone, iFixit found.
Second, because it damages the used product market, forcing up prices for consumers.
Parts pairing flies in the face of how refurbishers do business: by harvesting working components from dead devices and using them to restore other devices to good-as-new condition. “It’s a very big threat on refurbishment, and the cost of repair in refurbishment, that we need to address,” Marie Castelli, head of public affairs at the online refurbished device store Back Market, said.
It’s not just Apple doing this. Printer companies were the first culprits, using chips in ink cartridges to block the use of third-party ones, and to prevent refilling (as printers would refuse to print after reporting that the cartridge was empty, even if you refilled it). John Deere outraged farmers when it started using electronic locks to prevent DIY tractor repairs. But it’s now a growing problem.
Husqvarna chainsaws require a dealer to authenticate the firmware on new parts; Xbox and PlayStation disc drives are paired with the motherboard; and replacement car parts are increasingly “VIN locked,” or paired to a specific car’s serial number.
The EU is already considering banning parts pairing. In the US, Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the repair advocacy organization Repair.org, says that they are constantly trying to add protections to each state law, including parts pairing restrictions.
In the US, repair advocates are also setting their sights on more ambitious rules and regulations following their recent legislative victories. Gordon-Byrne says she expects to see other states follow in California’s footsteps and pass their own right-to-repair bills in the years to come. “We’re trying to make sure every ‘me too’ includes something that pushes the envelope,” Gordon-Byrne said.
That could mean coverage for devices that were exempted from the recent laws, expanded software support over the long term, or restrictions on parts pairing. (Minnesota’s law includes language that should ban the practice, but with California’s law overshadowing it, it remains to be seen whether corporations will comply, Gordon-Byrne said.)
Apple’s argument against right to repair has always centered on the idea that third-party components may not perform as well as originals, giving customers a poor experience. The company is now using the same argument to justify parts pairing – that all Apple is doing is confirming that products are genuine.
To be clear, some object to even this much, because the cost difference between a genuine and aftermarket part could mean the difference between a repair being economic or not, but the more black-and-white argument has always been that there shouldn’t be an artificial barrier to DIY repairs using genuine Apple parts.
If Apple provided a fast, easy, reliable, and free way to verify a component as genuine, and reset the parts pairing to match it to the device being repaired, it could make this problem go away. But history tells us that it will only do so when dragged kicking and screaming, which is to say, compelled or pressured by legislation.
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