Why Apple is supporting the “right to repair” in California

States across the country are considering “right to repair” laws. New York and Minnesota have passed them, and California is closing in on one of its own.

These laws require most electronics and appliance manufacturers to provide instructions and tools to consumers wanting to repair their products instead of paying company technicians for the service or, worst case, buying a replacement.

It’s something that iPhone maker Apple has long fought, until last month, when the company suddenly announced its support for California’s bill.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali asked Brian Heater, hardware editor at TechCrunch, about Apple’s change of heart and what it means for consumers.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Brian Heater: What’s great about this for Californians, and I think basically everybody on the internet, is that companies will have to start putting repair manuals online. So, those will just be available for you to use. If your phone has a small issue, you can download the manual and fix it yourself. They have to supply those components and they have to give you the tools to repair it if you want to repair it.

Lily Jamali: Apple does now give people a toolkit to that end, but they are now also supporting the right to repair law in California. Why is that?

Heater: I think there are a lot of factors at play here. The biggest one looming over all of this is that there are a few states that have passed this kind of law, and there are a lot of states currently in the process of passing some version of a right to repair bill. The European Union, which has historically been very progressive when it comes to legislating technology, is looking at this too. So they know that this is over the horizon. It’s basically in their best interest to support a bill that adheres pretty closely to what they’re currently offering with their home-repair kit right now. I think they really liked what was in the California bill, and I think they don’t think that it overstepped what they’re comfortable with.

Jamali: It’s interesting to see how the more advanced the iPhone gets, the more of a commitment we’re seeing from the company to allow consumers into the phone. Can you talk about the way that the iPhone is constructed? How has it historically been made? And what kinds of changes are we seeing in the guts of these phones?

Heater: If you want to repair your iPhone, and you send away for that kit, Apple will send you the blueprints, some screws and some screwdrivers. They’ll also send you this giant brick of a device, which is a glue melter. And I think something that a lot of people don’t understand is that there’s a lot of glue in your phone. And the reason why there’s a lot of glue in your phone is because phones have gotten slimmer and slimmer, and that leaves less room for components. That’s really difficult for people to repair with just a standard set of tools. You actually have to get this thing and put the phone in it and get it to a certain temperature at which the glue starts to melt.

They’re doing a lot more with less when it comes to the design of these products. And if you look at the chipmakers, the people who make the processors that power these products, the language has changed over the last few years. You’ll hear a lot of them use the term SOC, system on a chip. Effectively, this means that this really small piece of electronics is your central processor, it’s your graphics processor, it’s all of these things in the same unit. As these things get smaller and smaller, they get harder and harder to repair with just standard tools that you would have at home.

Jamali: Apple’s big iPhone event is on Tuesday, and they’ll be showcasing the launch of the new iPhone 15 as well as some other gadgets. Are you expecting to see any talk about Apple’s new support for this right to repair bill?

Heater: Yeah, I think that they will give a little bit of stage time over to it. I don’t know if they fundamentally changed anything as far as the actual architecture of the device, but they are now in favor of this idea that is extremely popular with consumers and is extremely popular with tech enthusiasts. So absolutely, they’ll take a little bit of a victory lap there. It also slots in pretty nicely with their sustainability goals. A big part of the reason that people want this kind of access is because if you can fix that screen or that button, that means that you don’t have to buy a new phone every year or every other year. It extends the life on these devices and therefore hopefully leads to less e-waste.

Jamali: I hear you saying that this helps with their sustainability goals, but it also seems very much at odds with the business model of a company that’s rooted in selling phones, right?

Heater: Ah ha! See, there’s the rub. If you look at the numbers historically, as far as the actual iPhones that Apple has sold it, it’s been creeping down a bit. But that’s just a piece of the overall market. Smartphone sales were declining before the pandemic, and then the pandemic just completely exacerbated things. There’s all these economic problems and all sorts of reasons why people aren’t buying as many phones as they used to. So over the last few years, Apple has been very proactive about extending their services wing. That includes things like Apple Music, Apple TV and iCloud is a huge part of it too. Frankly, they’ve been very smart about this, and they’ve been anticipating that ultimately, there’s a little bit of saturation and that smartphone numbers can’t just continue to grow forever.

More on this

E-waste is a serious problem globally. By one estimate, the world is projected to generate well over 100 million tons of it each year by 2050. Much of that waste ends up in developing countries dealing with e-waste issues of their own. It’s often dealt with under hazardous conditions.

And a shoutout to our friends at KCRW here in Los Angeles for a segment they did on iFixit, the online community where people teach each other how to fix their phones as well as other electronics.

CEO Kyle Wiens spoke with the station’s “Greater LA” program about how it was once a lot easier to do our own electronics repairs. He argued that changed once the VCR came along, marking the beginning of a trend toward cheap, disposable, but still complex devices.