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Apple Is Locking Batteries to Specific iPhones, a Nightmare for DIY Repair

The move makes it impossible for anyone who is "unauthorized" to replace a battery on an iPhone without losing important features.

by Jason Koebler
Aug 8 2019, 1:41pm

Image: Justin Ashford

A longtime nightmare scenario for independent iPhone repair companies has come true: Apple has tied batteries to specific iPhones, meaning that only it has the ability to perform an authorized battery replacement on the newest versions of iPhones, two independent experiments have found.

Battery replacements are among the most common repairs done by Apple and by independent repair companies. This is because lithium ion batteries eventually lose their ability to hold a charge, which will eventually make the phone unusable. Replacing the battery greatly extends the life of the phone: Apple CEO Tim Cook acknowledged earlier this year that battery replacements are resulting in fewer people buying new iPhones, which has affected Apple’s bottom line.

It’s concerning on many levels, then, that on the iPhone XS, XS Plus, and XR, that any battery swap not performed by Apple will result in the phone’s settings saying that the new battery needs “Service.” An iPhone will still turn on and function with an aftermarket battery, but several important features are unavailable, and the iPhone warns users that they should seek service, presumably from an Apple Store.

“You can’t put a battery in a customer’s phone and have them see ‘service’ without them saying something,” Justin Ashford, who designs aftermarket iPhone parts in Shenzhen, China, told Motherboard. “It erodes trust from the clientele, and makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing. You lose functions and features that Apple touted as a brand advantage—how am I going to explain to a 60-year-old grandmother that, if she wants to see battery health, she needs to install third party technician tools?”

Ashford discovered that this problem is occurring even when the phone's original battery is swapped with a genuine Apple replacement battery, and posted a video about it on his YouTube.

“Important battery message: Unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple battery. Health information not available for this battery,” the phone says. The iPhone will not show the battery’s maximum capacity or its “peak performance capability,” two new features Apple introduced after it was found that the company was throttling performance on iPhones with older batteries. To be clear, these features work on older iPhones even with aftermarket or replacement batteries.

Ashford's findings indicate that the company is using software to tie the phone’s original battery to the phone. In the past, Apple has done this with Touch ID, in which the physical home button is tied to the phone that it was shipped with—only Apple and a select few “authorized” repair shops have the ability to map a new Touch ID button to a repaired phone. Apple presumably has the ability to tie a new battery to an old iPhone using a hardware or software fix. Ashford’s experiment was independently replicated by iFixit.

Ashford, who designs aftermarket iPhone parts in Shenzhen, told Motherboard that, for years, iPhones have had an authentication chip on their batteries, but that hasn’t prevented aftermarket batteries from working normally with iPhones, including with Apple’s new battery health features.

“They’ve always had this lock, but it looks like they just decided to lock it,” Ashford said.

In a statement to Motherboard sent after this article's original publication, Apple said that it implemented this change for safety reasons:

“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," the company said.

"Last year we introduced a new feature to notify customers if we were unable to verify that the battery was genuine and 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," it added. "This notification does not impact the customer’s ability to use the phone after an unauthorized repair.”

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, a group pushing for right to repair legislation that would undermine Apple’s repair monopoly and require electronics companies to sell genuine replacement parts to the public, told Motherboard this is “definitely a holy crap moment.”

“Apple just doesn’t get how much harm they are doing to their image,” she said.

Mick Ventocilla, a repair shop owner in Michigan, said that battery replacements are “a huge part of our daily revenue and one of our highest unsold repairs.”

“It’s sad to see because most customers are far away from the nearest Apple store so if they need to get their battery replaced, which is a totally normal thing, they might just upgrade and cause more e-waste,” he added.

Aakshay Kriplani, CEO of Injured Gadgets, said “it’s definitely frustrating,” but said that, for the moment, he’s not too freaked out: “As long as the battery works fine, and charges/discharges fine, I don’t see it as that big of an issue.”

While that may be true in the short term, this move by Apple is the latest in a long string of actions that have made it more difficult for independent repair companies to work on its products. For example, the latest line of MacBook Pros has a software kill switch that has the ability to essentially end third-party repair.

This article has been updated with comment from Apple.