Apple’s Self-Repair Vision Is Here, and It’s Got a Catch

Apple’s Self-Repair Vision Is Here, and It’s Got a Catch

Update April 28, 2022: This article originally misquoted the price for an in-store iPhone 12 display repair. This repair currently costs $279, not $365 as initially stated.

Apple is finally rolling out self-service repair, the DIY repair parts program they promised last November. Starting today, US fixers can buy iPhone 12, 13, and SE 3 parts and tools from Apple. Parts are available for the battery, bottom speaker, camera, display, SIM tray, and taptic engine. Over the next year, the program will extend to M1 MacBooks and from there to Europe, with other products and markets on the horizon. It is unclear whether Apple will eventually support older iPhone models like iFixit does.

We were cautiously optimistic about the program in November. Anything that enables more people to do repairs is great news! And there’s a lot to be excited about in the details Apple announced today: seven years of parts availability, retail sales of tools that only official Apple techs could get before, and free step-by-step visual repair manuals available for everyone on Apple’s site. But as the doors open on this new venue, we’re underwhelmed, and settling back into our usual skepticism.

The biggest problem? Apple is doubling down on their parts pairing strategy, enabling only very limited, serial number-authorized repairs. You cannot purchase key parts without a serial number or IMEI. If you use an aftermarket part, there’s an “unable to verify” warning waiting for you. This strategy hamstrings third-party repair with feature loss and scare tactics and could dramatically limit options for recyclers and refurbishers, short-circuiting the circular economy. 

As of today, you can buy an official Apple iPhone 12 screen and install it yourself, on your own device, with no fuss. Until now, DIY repairs relied on keeping the Face ID speaker and sensor assembly intact, then very carefully moving it to your new screen, and finally ignoring some gentle warnings. If your assembly was damaged or defective, you were out of luck. The new program will solve that problem—assuming you’ve bought an official Apple part.

To check out with that part, however, you’ve got to put in your phone’s serial number or IMEI. And when you’re done installing the part, you need to pair it with the phone you indicated in your purchase, via over-the-air configurator software Apple says they will make available through their parts store. Requiring parts pairing essentially puts an expiration date on iPhones. When a refurbisher gets a functioning phone with no parts support, there will be no way for them to fully restore a product that needs a display replacement—even if they have an original Apple display from another phone. That’s why it was important to us that the parts we are selling for Google, HTC Vive, Motorola, Samsung, and Valve do not require a serial number to purchase or use software to pair the part to the device.

We are really happy to see Apple making repair manuals available for everyone for free online. Like, seriously happy. Like, we’ve-been-asking-for-this-for-twenty-years happy. They’re selling their own proprietary repair tools to the public, too, again for the very first time. You can buy official Apple battery presses and display adhesive removal devices—or even, to our surprise, rent those devices. For $49, you can rent the full complement of tools required for an Apple-approved DIY iPhone repair (that’s 79 pounds of tools, in two heavy-duty cases!). It feels a little like renting a Boston Dynamics robot just to change the oil on your car. The manuals are written with these heavy-duty tools in mind, even though it’s hard to imagine that most DIY fixers would want to go through the expense or hassle of acquiring this much equipment. Luckily, fixers have been proving themselves very capable of iPhone repair with a simpler set of tools for a while now.

We’re also glad that Apple promises seven years of iPhone part availability, in addition to ten years of MacBook batteries (granted, seven years of support was already required by law in California). Changing batteries should be considered basic maintenance, and ten years of battery availability should be the industry minimum.

Prices remain consistent with the Independent Repair Provider Program, essentially letting DIY fixers buy parts at a sort of “wholesale.” (Not quite enough to satisfy businesses hoping for true wholesale, but we’ve got you, if that’s what you’re looking for.) An official Apple iPhone 12 battery will run you 6% of the cost of a new phone, and a screen about 33%. And that’s given a core return, meaning Apple gets your old screen. That’s good news for e-waste, and good news for Apple—they get to refurbish the screen for reuse. 

Apple’s iPhone 12 displays are $269.95, and you get $33.60 back when you return the screen. Renting the tools from Apple adds another $49, making the total repair $285.35. This repair in an Apple store is $279 (which means the DIY repair with tool rental is actually more expensive than an in-store repair!). iFixit sells this part for $249.95 for an OLED display or $199.95 for an aftermarket LCD—with a kit that includes the tools. iFixit’s parts prices drop dramatically over time—for reference, our iPhone 11 screen repair kit, including tools, is $124.99.

While it’s a great step for repair, and a change of course for the mighty Apple, the program doesn’t do what Right to Repair legislation around the world aims to do. A true right to repair will give independent repair shops a chance to compete in the repair marketplace, bringing down the cost of repairs for everyone. Unfortunately, this program expands the freedom to repair with one hand, while locking the door with the other. Integrating a serial number check into their checkout process is a dire omen and could allow Apple the power to block even more repairs in the future. Building the technology to provision individual repairs easily sets Apple up as the gateway to approve—or deny—any repairs in the future, with parts from any source.

We’d love to be able to champion Apple’s DIY repair program unequivocally. It’s surely better than not having a DIY repair option at all. But it’s not the unqualified win for repair enthusiasts that Apple’s marketers would have you believe. At least Apple is getting some of their homework done in advance. Manufacturers know the right to repair is coming—we’ll get the rest of their assignments in due time.