Last year, an iOS update killed touch functionality on iPhone 7 devices that had been repaired with third-party screens by independent repair stores. Patch notes for the update said that third-party replacement parts might not work correctly, but a week later another update resolved the issue. The message was clear: Software updates can kill core functionality on phones repaired by a third party.
It was bad enough that Michael Oberdick—owner and operator of iOutlet, an Ohio-based pre-owned iPhone store and repair shop—decided not to take a wait-and-see approach when Apple launched its new phones: “We don’t even do the 8 repairs this year, on purpose,” Oberdick told me over the phone. “I had a really good feeling that something like this was going to happen again.
Oberdick was right. Apple released iOS 11.3 at the end of March, and the update is killing touch functionality in iPhone 8s repaired with some aftermarket screens that worked prior to the update. That means people who broke their phone and had the audacity to get it repaired by anyone other than Apple is having a hard time using their phone. “This has caused my company over 2,000 reshipments,” Aakshay Kripalani, CEO of Injured Gadgets, a Georgia-based retailer and repair shop, told me in a Facebook message. “Customers are annoyed and it seems like Apple is doing this to prevent customers from doing 3rd party repair.”
According to Oberdick, every iPhone screen is powered by a small microchip, and that chip is what the repair community believes to be causing the issue. For the past six months, shops have been able to replace busted iPhone 8 screens with no problem, but something in the update killed touch functionality. According to several people I spoke to, third-party screen suppliers have already worked out the issue, but fixing the busted phones means re-opening up the phone and upgrading the chip.
It remains to be seen whether Apple will issue a new software update that will suddenly fix these screens, but that is part of the problem: Many phones repaired by third parties are ticking timebombs; it’s impossible for anyone to know if or when Apple will do something that breaks devices fixed with aftermarket parts.
And every time a software update breaks repaired phones, Apple can say that third-party repair isn't safe, and the third-party repair world has to scramble for workarounds and fixes.
This is just the latest example of an ongoing struggle between Apple and independent repair shops. Shops that do repairs can only get officially licensed parts if they agree to certain restrictions, so stores have long relied on the grey market to get third party pieces that are often just as good as the original. Sometimes, they’re even made in the same factories.
"They're the manufacturer. Ultimately, they hold all the cards."
Using an independent store to repair your iPhone is usually cheaper and sometimes the only efficient option. In Ohio, where Oberdick’s stores operates, customers may have to drive upwards of two hours to reach an official Apple store. The only other option is to ship the phone across the country and wait.
It’s not the only issue hurting the third party repair market. Several shops I spoke with pointed out that repairing anything on the expensive iPhone X is an absolute nightmare. The ambient light sensor, the part of the phone that adjusts the brightness of the display based on its surroundings, will stop functioning if the screen is replaced by anyone outside of Apple, even if the screen is an official part.
Ditto for the front camera that’s used to unlock the phone with Face ID: “The iPhone X front camera...is paired to the [logic board]. If it’s transferred, the Face ID feature will not work,” Oberdick told me. “Apple will be the only person who can actually replace the front camera to allow face ID to work.”
Again, this is similar to an issue where the home button on the iPhone 7s was paired to the logic board and impossible to replace without killing functionality. “It's very easy to go down the rabbit hole of thinking that Apple is trying to make it JUST inconvenient enough to even consider third-party repair a reliable option,” Kev Notton—founder of San Diego-based RepairMapr, a diagnosis tool that repair shops can use to annotate their repairs—told me on Facebook. “That terrifies me, because they're the manufacturer. Ultimately, they hold all the cards.”
It’s an important debate right now as states across the U.S. debate right to repair laws. It’s possible that Apple, as one of the largest and most popular smartphone manufacturers on the planet, could hurt the movement by making it difficult to fix your phone outside its ecosystem.
Apple did not immediately respond to request for comment.