Is Apple Locking iPhone Batteries to Discourage Repair?

August 14, 2019: Apple Statement

Apple sent me the following statement:

"We take the safety of our customers very seriously and want to make sure any battery replacement is done properly. There are now over 1,800 Apple authorized service providers across the US so our customers have even more convenient access to quality repairs. Last year we introduced a new feature to notify customers if we were unable to verify that a new, genuine battery was installed by a certified technician following Apple repair processes. This information is there to help protect our customers from damaged, poor quality, or used batteries which can lead to safety or performance issues. This notification does not impact the customer's ability to use the phone after an unauthorized repair."

A couple of days ago, Justin from TheArtofRepair YouTube channel discovered that, all of a sudden, swapping out the battery on an iPhone resulted in the newish battery health monitoring system turning off and popping up:

Important battery message: Unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple battery. Health information not available for this battery

Since then, we've seen headlines like Vice's "Apple Is Locking Batteries to Specific iPhones, a Nightmare for DIY Repair" and, of course, iFixit's "Apple Is Locking iPhone Batteries to Discourage Repair" and just a ton more like them.

Now, I'm going to push back kinda hard on using the term "locking" for any of this. Not because I'm an evil Apple apologist or defender, even though I can feel some of you just itching… itching to start typing that in the comments right now already.

But wait... just wait. Because I think it's just dumb and lets Apple off the hook far too easily.

First, It's listed publicly on Apple's iPhone Battery and Performance page as applicable to Phone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. And has been since at least March 1st.

Second, Joe Rossignol has also shown a support document from back in April that tells technicians to run RepairCal to make sure it doesn't happen with Apple repairs. RepairCal being Apple's repair and calibration system that authenticates the hardware for the software.

In this case, there's a chip on the battery that has to be paired with the board, something that only Apple's tools can do, and if it's not, you get that warning.

According to iFixit, it can be worked around by swapping the original chip onto the new battery, but that's a much tougher and more onerous job.

Apple has invested heavily in making iPhones last longer. Everything from devoting most the iOS 12 engineering resources to performance enhancements for older phones, to putting in chipsets with years of overhead, to providing updates longer than pretty much everyone else in the industry. So why make third party repairs harder?

Some of the coverage has then focused on this being a move deliberately designed to hurt third party repair shops and it's going to make Apple look really, really bad.

The first part is about as silly as saying right-to-repair is deliberately pushed to make a buck off selling high priced DYI kits. It's just nonsense. Hurting third parties really sucks. Like really sucks. But it's collateral damage. And it's why the second part is bunk too. Apple doesn't really care about looking bad with this.

What Apple cares about is catastrophic battery failures. Apple cares about that a lot.

It may seem like people didn't really care about Galaxy Note 7 having a failure rate so high people were literally instructed, over the intercom, not to have any on flights. But that's the nightmare scenario here.

Ever notice that when Samsung was going through the whole Galaxy Note 7 thing, Apple didn't take any shots at them. Like zero. Because it's not a company thing. It's a technology thing. Lithium Ion is the best mainstream battery we have right now but it's far from perfect and having lithium-ion batteries explode or catch fire, get further restricted in terms of carry-on or shipping, damage property, or worst of all, hurt people — that's it. That's the end.

While some third party and indy repair shops are among the very best and most highly skilled in the world, some of them aren't. Those tend to be the ones that cause problems.

And if you just can't bring yourself to think Apple or any other manufacturer really cares about property damage or personal injury console yourself, just tell yourself they care about the legal exposure that comes with it, and will do an awful lot to limit it as much as possible.

And again, that totally sucks for the many, many great shops out there. But, beyond the sensationalism and victimy-ness, that's the real issue that needs to be negotiated.

I say negotiated for a reason. Apple didn't just lock out third party battery repairs but they sure as hell heaped a ton of stigma onto them, and at the expense of a super useful feature for customers.

And that's why, ultimately, my thinking on this hasn't changed. I fully support right to repair but, please don't make me quote Spider-Man here, it has to come with responsibility as well.

That includes provisions for the handling of potentially dangerous materials like lithium-ion batteries, quality standards for parts where failure just isn't an option. That includes batteries but also authentication so bad actors can't just swap their way into your data.

With severe penalties for shoddy work and security and privacy violations, like fixing your phone but stealing your nudes and sexts. Which, yes, has happened a bunch of times already as well.

Because, if you're going to regulate right to repair, you need to regulate repair as well. Otherwise, this is just about money and going from Apple, who's a big and easy target, to a bunch of much smaller, much less accountable targets, with unknown benefits to consumers.

And it should always be the consumer who ultimately benefits.

In the meantime, I'm going to hard agree with my colleague, Lory Gil. Instead of turning off battery monitoring, which is hella passive-aggressive, Apple should just steal a page from MFi and pop up an annoyer that says much the same thing, then, each and every time you dismiss it, you get an estimation of battery health anyway. Even in another color if they have to.

That way, people who are buying second-hand iPhones also have a super easy way to know if the battery has been changed and, if it hasn't been changed by Apple. Which may factor into their purchasing decision. Which is totally fair.

Corporate asses covered. Customers disclosed. But I'd love to hear your take on this. How do you think we should balance cost and availability of repair with safety and privacy? Let me know in the comments.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.