Apple’s Parts Pairing Rollback Doesn’t Go Far Enough
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Apple’s Parts Pairing Rollback Doesn’t Go Far Enough

In a move timed to influence today’s Right to Repair hearing in the Colorado Senate, Apple just promised to make some small changes to their customer-hostile parts pairing program. The changes will roll out “this fall” for an unspecified subset of the iPhone product line. The most notable change is that they will stop blocking their own parts from working in their own devices, a tactic that we have extensively reported on

Opening up their system to allow for parts harvesting will be a huge boon to refurbishers. However, the changes to the parts pairing system are too small to address many of its most critical problems. Reading between the lines in their announcement, they plan on continuing to ban aftermarket parts. Such parts are critical to the repair economy, and can cost as little as half the price of an original Apple part. The changes also likely don’t cover any of the 1.3 billion iPhones in use today, they don’t address any of the other Apple products limited by parts pairing, and all repairs will still require you to phone home to the Apple mothership for permission.

Earlier this year, Oregon passed a law preventing manufacturers from using parts pairing to “prevent or inhibit an independent repair provider or an owner from installing or enabling the function of an otherwise functional part.” Colorado is set to follow, with a bill that overwhelmingly passed the House last month. The bill passed through a key Senate committee today with a 5-2 vote despite Apple’s announcement.

Patent Protection

Parts pairing is the practice of blocking parts from working in a device without permission from the manufacturer. We’ve seen parts pairing in dozens of devices, ranging from chainsaws to tractors, but Apple’s version of it is the most comprehensive and most repair-limiting system we’ve seen. To make it work, Apple has had to innovate—so much so that they have a patent on it.

We can reveal for the first time the patent underlying Apple’s notorious parts pairing scheme. Here’s how it works: Apple has a serial number on each part inside the phone. When you install a new part, the phone detects that the serial number has changed and displays a warning or outright rejects the part unless Apple’s remote servers approve the change. 

The basic worldview behind this patent is one where every aspect of the device is controlled by the original manufacturer, even after you purchase it. The author of the patent, John Perry, testified in Oregon opposing the state’s ban on parts pairing. He said that banning parts pairing would undermine “security, safety and privacy” of users and even went so far as to saying that parts pairing made “access to repair easier.” 

Flowchart from Apple’s parts pairing patent.

His examples don’t hold up to critical examination. Testifying in opposition, Google pointed out that with repair mode and an openly accessible calibration tool, they have a very effective safety and privacy system for Pixel phones without resorting to blocking unknown parts.

In the testimony, Perry also stated that “consumers have the right to choose which parts they use for repair provided that the device transparently reflects the repair history and use of the part does not pose a risk to the safety of the consumers.” While this new change enables a repair history, it certainly still inhibits the user’s right to choose which parts to use.

Apple’s New Changes

Today’s walkback of parts pairing restrictions is a response to Oregon’s new law restricting the practice, and the rapid movement in Colorado and other states to pass laws requiring parts interoperability.

Let’s dive into Apple’s announcement. It covers “select iPhone models” coming this fall. That’s amazingly vague. At some point, later this year, certain phones (which may not be released yet), will have unspecified subtle behavior changes when you install certain parts.

That’s such an esoteric announcement! Why would they do this, taking pains to brief reporters on embargo? Well, it just so happens that a Right to Repair bill in Colorado that would ban parts pairing is having a key hearing today.

Apple’s announcing this far in advance of actually making the changes, which they say will start taking effect “this fall.” That could mean that it will be released in conjunction with the iPhone 16 in September, but also that we need to wait until November to see what Apple’s parts pairing revision looks like. They’ve never explained exactly what components are paired and under what conditions, so it will be interesting to see if this change includes more transparency about the process.

Apple didn’t invent the tactic of announcing a small change at a critical moment. In an attempt to derail an agriculture Right to Repair law, last year Case IH announced a Memorandum of Understanding the very day of a key hearing in Colorado. Legislators saw through their ruse and passed the law anyway, making the state the first in the world to entrench solid protections for farmers repairing their equipment.

Some of the parts pairing warnings on an iPhone after a battery replacement.

How This Impacts Repair

Apple’s change should make it easier to harvest second-hand parts from old iPhones—at least as long as it is approved by Apple and included in the nebulous list of “select iPhone models.” This is essential for recyclers and refurbishers who rely on harvested parts to refurbish products. 

However, the change will not touch the mountains of e-waste that are generated from iCloud-locked devices, which can’t be resold because of Activation Locks installed by Apple. Their announcement says these locks will be extended to each part, so a screen from an Activation Locked device could not be resold. This is a strange expansion: we don’t know of any complaints from law enforcement about resale of parts from iCloud-locked devices.

The changes for now also do not cover other Apple devices that have been limited by parts pairing and Activation Lock, including MacBooks.

In a move that will help repair shops, Apple says that “customers and service providers will no longer need to provide a device’s serial number when ordering parts from the Self Service Repair Store for repairs not involving replacement of the logic board.” This will allow repair shops to stock parts without having an already-broken customer phone in front of them—and without agreeing to any of the restrictive, invasive terms Apple has previously placed on independent repair shops.  

Importantly, Apple hasn’t budged on the crucial issue of enabling aftermarket parts. It’s supposed to look like an opening of the parts pairing practice while still keeping Apple as an arbiter of repairs that controls which parts are acceptable for you to use.  

In an interview with the Washington Post, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering “[John] Ternus said Apple ‘totally believes that third-party parts should be usable in repair’ as long as the use of those parts is disclosed to a device’s owner. But the reason those aftermarket parts in iPhones won’t work the same as original parts do, he added, is because Apple doesn’t know how to calibrate them to work as the company intended.” But repair shops remain skeptical, as Apple has a track record of randomly bricking phones repaired with third-party parts.

Continuing to restrict the installation of aftermarket parts allows Apple to maintain control—and set prices wherever they see fit. They can combine parts into expensive assemblies, restrict their suppliers from selling parts to the aftermarket, and limit the availability of parts from third-party sources, all of which continues to make it harder for independent repair shops to compete.

Importantly, completing the repair of a part that has been paired will still require an internet connection and remote authentication process. This means that people won’t be able to complete repairs without reliable internet access. Plus, it maintains Apple’s control of the repair at the source: They can decide at any point to deny the pairing. And when there are bugs in the system, we’ll be at their mercy, waiting for them to release updates to fix them.

The devil is in the details, and Apple’s parts pairing system has been so buggy (even sometimes falsely identifying original screens as having been replaced), they don’t have much credibility to layer complexity to the system. We’ve been at the forefront of trying to understand Apple’s parts pairing system, and the amount of difficult-to-reproduce behavior and outright bugs that we’ve encountered belies Apple’s usual attention to detail.

The Broader Context

Around the world, Apple is responding to public backlash against their monopolistic practices by dodging and weaving and avoiding making substantive changes that would benefit their customers.

Apple fought the European Commission’s attempts to standardize on USB-C ports, clearly flaunting the will of legislators and the public. They forced legislators to pass language solely aimed at Apple requiring standardized chargers. When faced with laser-focused laws, Apple finally caved. But that is the exception rather than the norm.

This year, as the EU’s DMA rolls out, Apple is allowing apps from other app stores in the most legalistic, difficult to navigate mechanism possible. You can run an app store if you are able to show Apple an “stand-by letter of credit in the amount of €1,000,000” or have been a developer for two years with an app that has had more than 1 million downloads in the EU in the previous year, in addition to a laundry list of other requirements. Users who jump through all these hoops and install your app store will find that it stops working if they leave Europe for an unspecified amount of time.

Last year, startup Beeper figured out a way to allow Android users to send iMessages, allowing them to send secure text messages to their iPhone friends for the first time. Apple swiftly responded by blocking the app, prompting swift condemnation from lawmakers.

This is not the behavior of an innovator. Apple’s malicious compliance is reminiscent of IBM in the 80s, and Microsoft in the 90s. They’re clinging to their monopoly, and their profits, so hard that they are strangling their customers in the process.

The Apple that I grew up loving spent their time creating amazing new products. The Apple of today is busy patenting methods of making sure that you can’t fix your phone with aftermarket parts.

The Bottom Line

Apple is making all sorts of subtle changes and caveats and “soon we will” claims. Why not just walk the whole parts pairing system back entirely? It’s customer-hostile behavior. No one has ever said, “I wish parts were less interchangeable inside my phone.”

This is a strategy of half-promises and unnecessarily complicated hedges designed to deflect attention from legislators intent on banning the practice altogether. It’s time for Apple to unpair the iPhone.