Tech News

Apple’s Secret Repair Kill Switch Hasn’t Been Activated—Yet

Well, stop the presses. Turns out, ‘Apple makes your MacBook inoperative if you get it fixed at local repair shops’ isn’t quite true—not yet, no matter what The Sun says. Our lab testing has found that independent (and DIY) repair is alive and well. But it is under threat.

Even though the Mac line has grown less repairable over time, fixers have still managed to develop techniques for performing essential screen and battery repairs—until now. According to an internal Apple service document, any Mac with an Apple T2 chip now requires the proprietary ‘Apple Service Toolkit 2 (AST 2) System Configuration Suite’ (whew, that’s a mouthful!) to complete certain repairs. This issue has received extensive coverage, but we wanted to perform some lab testing before we took our shot. Let’s break down what all this means first.

Apple T2 chip

The wily T2 chip in question.

Apple’s bulletin states that repairs to a laptop’s display assembly, logic board, upper case, and Touch ID board will require Apple’s secret software toolkit. In case you weren’t counting, that’s pretty much everything but the battery. On desktops, the logic board and flash storage are affected. But how?

E.T. Phone Home

Here’s how Apple describes the new process: After replacing a part, a technician must run the configuration suite, which connects to Apple’s Global Service Exchange (GSX) server to perform performance and compatibility checks for the new parts. Without this software, an internet connection, and approval from Apple’s servers, the repair is considered incomplete and the computer is rendered inoperative.

AST 2 is only provided to Apple stores and a very few select ‘Authorized Apple Service Providers’ (AASPs) that are under strict confidentiality and business contracts mandating what parts they can use and what they charge. This shift will leave third-party repair shops out to dry, not to mention the rest of us that are accustomed to fixing our own hardware. It is unclear whether this software is available to certified self-servicing accounts—if not, schools and businesses are out of luck too.

Our Testing

This service document certainly paints a grim picture, but ever the optimists, we headed down to our friendly local Apple Store and bought a brand new 2018 13” MacBook Pro Touch Bar unit. Then we disassembled it and traded displays with our teardown unit from this summer. To our surprise, the displays and MacBooks functioned normally in every combination we tried. We also updated to Mojave and swapped logic boards with the same results.

That’s a promising sign, and it means the sky isn’t quite falling—yet. But as we’ve learned, nothing is certain. Apple has a string of software-blocked repair scandals under its belt, including the device-disabling Error 53, a functionality-throttling Batterygate, and repeated feature-disabling incidents. It’s very possible that a future software update could render these “incomplete repairs” inoperative, and who knows when, or if, a fix will follow.

Taking apart the MacBook Pro touch barWe completed a display replacement on a 2018 13″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar to see if we would experience any of the suspected complications.

Our guess is that this software tracks serial numbers and other parts data so Apple can verify AASPs are correctly completing repairs. It may also perform calibration, or it could simply be a way of keeping their authorized network in line. Basically it means Apple owns your device, not you, and could conceivably disable it remotely if they detect unauthorized repairs going on. For years, Apple has actively fought right to repair legislation in the US, but hasn’t outright blocked independent repair—this would be a big step, even for them.

The End Game

So why is Apple doing this? It could simply be a mechanism for tracking parts used by their authorized network, to check quality or replacement rates. It’s possible that units with swapped parts may operate normally, but still report a failure in Apple diagnostic tests for having ‘unauthorized’ components installed—much like earlier units did on earlier versions of AST for third party HDD/SSD, RAM and batteries.

If it’s not, then we have a problem. Making part swaps dependent on secret software would be a customer-hostile move. It would impact people that don’t live near an AASP, can’t afford to go to one, don’t have time to mail their device, or like to use their computer longer than five years (the timeframe that Apple supports their hardware except where legally required otherwise). Third-party repair shops—which cater to the aforementioned groups—already struggle to keep up with Apple’s shenanigans.

Non-swappable parts would mean that large parts of the world will find themselves with unusable Macs, and no means for repair. Add to that a somewhat fragile keyboard on the 2018 MacBook Pro, and the situation becomes even more dire. This is a ridiculous idea, especially from a company that claims to care about professionals and the environment. Damaged devices with a T2 chip could become expensive paperweights (or just trash) as soon as they reach vintage status.

Apple T2 chip in the MacBook ProWhy is Apple targeting Macs with the T2 chip?

Apple seems to be following the footsteps of John Deere and most automakers: you exchange money for a product, but you can’t actually do anything to that product yourself—sounds more like renting than ownership to us. Apple’s becoming another overbearing parent that can’t quite bring itself to let its children—err, customers—take full ownership of their devices. Except in this case parental love isn’t Apple’s motivating force—it’s profit.

Luckily, we can do something about this. The auto world already has a right to repair act requiring that automakers provide independent mechanics with the means to do any repairs that a dealer can. You shouldn’t have to wait until Apple deigns to push a fix, you shouldn’t let Apple remotely detonate your device. You need real repairs, and electronics right to repair laws can help. Mac repair may not be dead yet, but it’s certainly not safe—Apple has made that much painfully obvious.