Apple has quietly added a feature that discourages iPhone owners from using a third-party repair company to fix their batteries. But is it fair?
This week, the YouTube channel The Art of Repair published a video showing how Apple is “locking” batteries to its iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. According to The Art of Repair, when iPhone owners replace the batteries in their iPhones with a new unit they install themselves or use an unauthorized third-party to install, Apple’s iOS software will display a “Service” message.
That Service message, which is only displayed in Apple’s Battery page in the iPhone’s Settings, says Apple is “unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple battery.” While the Service message is on, users won’t be able to get important battery information, including the battery percentage left and whether their battery is healthy or needs to be replaced. However, the phone is still usable and the message doesn’t affect the iPhone’s functionality.
Oddly enough, the Service message appears to have nothing to do with the battery itself. The Art of Repair installed a genuine Apple battery taken from another iPhone, inserted it into the test device, and the Service message appeared. The YouTube channel, along with electronics repair company iFixit, which also tested the feature, ultimately found that unless a battery is replaced by an Apple Genius or a technician at an Apple Authorized Reseller, like Best Buy, the Service message will appear.
According to The Art of Repair and iFixit, it would appear that Apple’s Geniuses and Authorized Resellers have a tool, unavailable to third-party repair shops, that allow them to verify the iPhone’s battery and turn off the Service message.
If true, that would suggest that only when users go to Apple-chosen locations and pay for a battery replacement—which costs $69 in the case of the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR—will they be able to monitor their phone’s batteries.
“Apple continues to ignore the notion of ownership,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director for The Repair Association, an organization that supports the Right to Repair movement to empower consumers to fix their own products however they wish. “They sold the phone, it’s not theirs any longer, and it’s not for them to decide if/how/when/whom to trust for repair.”
Gordon-Byrne’s comments echo sentiments The Repair Association and others have shared in recent years on the state of repairing technology and household goods in the U.S.
Right to Repair supporters argue that consumers should have the right to fix their devices whenever and however they wish without losing functionality or features just because they didn’t opt for the manufacturer’s chosen component or process. What’s worse, they argue, when consumers are forced to use a manufacturer or that manufacturer’s chosen agent to fix products, costs can be significant.
“These irritating moves only help us gather supporters,” Gordon-Byrne tells Fortune. The Right to Repair movement has indeed gain some support. In March, California became the 20th state in the U.S. to float a Right to Repair bill on technology. Canada, Australia, and the European Union have also adopted campaigns to support Right to Repair regulations.
So far, however, none of the states has passed a technology Right to Repair bill. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have called for a national Right to Repair law, but neither has brought a bill to the Senate floor.
Collectively, supporters and lawmakers argue U.S. consumers are burdened by higher costs and limited choices without such legislation. And Nathan Proctor, U.S. Public Interest Research Group campaign director for the Right to Repair, says that’s a major problem.
“If you have a $1,000 phone with a $30 bad part, you would fix that,” he says. “But if your only option is to bring it back to your original manufacturer and they don’t have to charge you a competitive rate, they’ll charge you whatever they want to charge you.” Tech companies may also push consumers to buy a new device instead of repairing the one they already have, says Proctor.
Apple did not reply to Fortune‘s request for comment.
The Electronic Software Association (ESA), which represents several prominent technology companies, including Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, has been one of the more outspoken opponents of the Right to Repair bill.
“Our root concern is that this bill will weaken basic rights that consumers have to security and privacy, as well as endangering intellectual property rights,” the ESA’s media relations vice president Dan Hewitt told Mashable last year.
Hewitt questioned whether consumers should trust third-party repair companies with their data and said they should fear shops that “take risks or cut corners.”
But for Right to Repair advocates like Gordon-Byrne and Proctor, Apple’s move has a “financial motive” and is an attempt by the iPhone maker to “hoodwink customers into buying new phones.” That alone, they say, is cause for concern.
“It’s a bad omen and has to be taken seriously,” Gordon-Byrne says, “not for this particular irritation, but for their clear intent to continue to thwart repair.”
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