On The Mend


Apple today announced Self Service Repair, which will allow customers who are comfortable with completing their own repairs access to Apple genuine parts and tools.

The conversations around original parts, vendor-blessed repairs, right-to-repair and freedom-to-tinker are often mixed up into one subject, with one "for" and one "against", the failings of one end used to deduct the other.

Apple, like many other manufacturers of mechanically sophisticated electronics, basically use the following argumentation: Our products are custom-fit for their purpose. We tirelessly chased down, manufactured or customized the right parts for the job, and we spent significant time on fit-and-finish so that everything works as intended. Therefore, care needs to be taken when repairing.

This is a reasonable, coherent position such as it is. The problem is the experience that the actions taken on behalf of it lead to in reality.

In reality, repairs with authorized service providers have to abide by glacial policies that prevent at least non-Apple Stores from stocking up on spare parts. Over the years, and across many separate incidents, I have had repairs of iPhones and MacBooks take many days beyond what the actual repair work would take. For devices that are intended to be used every day, this is not acceptable, and is the worst kind of business decision: the one that maintains control and policy at the expense of customer convenience. This is exactly as stupid as that pirated-vs-original comparison.

In reality, there exists two axes: qualified vs not, as well as Apple-blessed vs not. The Self Service Repair program highlights the absurdity of the emerging narrative: a random person at home, taking things carefully, can be trusted to do a job that an independent repair shop, which lives and dies by its reputation and literally does this all day can't be. Apple's previous position deserves some back-handed credit, in that at least "only we could do this" was free of such loops of logic – it was plainly and obviously wrong, but it was not that particular brand of ludicrous.

In reality, many people, from hobbyists to competent staff at repair shops in every village, town and city are perfectly well equipped to perform repairs, but are being prevented from doing so with original instructions and with original parts. While some would gleefully use knock-off parts to save a penny, most who do use them out of necessity, as a last resort.

There would be an instant and sharp drop in quality issues related to post-market repair if original parts and original instructions were simply available to everyone. This is not science fiction; with cheats, liars and penny-pinchers abound across all humanity, you can still repair cars without imminent physical danger, and off-network dealers or shops can still use original parts and instructions, at least in the EU.

In reality, miniaturization, water-proofing and minimalistic product design are not one-way funnels towards inexorable outcomes, but aspects in tension, to be managed. It is perfectly possible to make tiny, well-built objects with great fit and finish. In particular, it is perfectly possible to make minute changes to make disassembly enormously difficult and time consuming, or pedagogical and simple. (And as has recently been made clear, it is possible to needlessly entangle things that are completely disjoint, and undo this later.)

Just as it is possible to design a device that is already hard to make with a special focus on friendliness and usefulness, just as it is possible to ponder how to source the materials responsibly and sustainably, it is possible to make ease (or even possibility) of repair a priority, and it would serve everyone to do so, including Apple itself.

But this isn't about saving Apple money. It is about rejecting a simplified, convenient, harmful world view. It is true that not everyone is capable of repairing everything and not everyone wants to repair everything. But this is not an excuse or an instruction to let the whimsical, anti-customer demands of self-obsessed corporations with a control fetish dictate misery for everyone who does not live within five minutes of an Apple Store. (In Sweden, which globally speaking has an outsized number of locations proportional to our population, roughly 75-80% of the population live more than 1 hour from one.)

And it is particularly not an excuse to perpetuate the myth that knock-off parts are a choice in all cases, and are preferred by individual repair shops, which are therefore dishonest and/or not about to do a good job anyway. The entirety of the market, and the quality of its collective outcomes, depends on Apple's policies. They can change it tomorrow.

If we are lucky, Self Service Repair is not a cynical fig leaf in the face of approaching regulation, but the first step of accepting responsibility and extending to their customers the respect for their time, property and business that has been long due.

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