Apple Has Begun Software Locking iPhone Batteries to Prevent Third-Party Replacement

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Apple has begun locking its batteries with software to prevent third-party replacements from reporting their status properly. The company is apparently activating a feature that it’s previously built into its products. The message persists, even if you swap in a genuine Apple battery, and it’s an attempt to shove customers towards using Apple and Apple-authorized resellers to the exclusion of third-party stores.

According to Justin at The Art of Repair, via iFixit, the message will pop up if you replace the battery on an iPhone XR, XS, or XS Max. The messaging from Apple pops up in both the latest version of iOS 12 and the iOS 13 beta.

Image by iFixit

But the real kicker here is the fact that this message happens even with a genuine Apple battery. There’s a Texas Instruments microcontroller attached to the Apple battery and it’s capable of acting as an SHA-1/HMAC authentication device. This means the battery can have an authentication code that’s locked to the specific phone and can only be changed by Apple or an authorized reseller. Swapping in an authentic Apple battery doesn’t work because the authentication key associated with that battery is different from the authentication key your phone expects to receive. According to iFixit, the only way to bypass the problem is to remove the microcontroller from your original battery and attach it to the new one. Hope you’re comfortable with a soldering iron.

As iFixit writes: “This “Service” indicator is the equivalent of a “Check Oil” light that only a Ford dealership can reset, even if you change the oil yourself.”

But we can’t say it’s a surprise. In 2017, Apple was caught lowering the performance of older devices without ever notifying end-users it had done so to preserve battery life. The company created a cheap battery replacement program for users who suffered severe device performance problems without knowing why and offered $29 battery upgrades rather than the typical $79 fee it charged. Last year, Tim Cook blamed iPhone owners who took advantage of this program for the company’s sales shortfall, rather than acknowledging it might have something to do with Apple’s decision to raise iPhone prices and kill its cheapest product (the iPhone SE).

When Apple reported its revenue recently, investors seized on two trends: The decline in iPhone sales and the surge in Services revenue. While Apple is making less money from iPhone sales, it’s making significantly more money from investing in other areas of the iDevice ecosystem. Unlike Google, which makes its Android money from advertising and rapacious data collection, Apple is also doubling down on the idea that it’s the company that keeps your information private.

But if Apple isn’t going to keep impressing Apple investors by selling more iPhones, it’s going to need to make considerably more money per user in order to compensate. Viewed with this lens, a lot of Apple’s decisions the past few years make a lot more sense. Why did the company introduce ‘Error 53‘ to lock-out third-party repair shops? To drive more repairs to Apple. AppleCare prices have gone up for most products over the past few years. Apple supports fast charging on its phones, but ships the same 5W phone charger it has used for years. Why? Because if it gives you the fast charger for free, it makes less per device. If you buy the fast charger yourself, you’ve just handed Apple pure profit based on typical cable mark-up. Why has Apple embraced building laptops with short display cables that can’t be fixed without buying a $500-$700 display panel and keyboards that can’t be fixed? Because if laptop repairs are insanely expensive, buying AppleCare looks less like a warranty you won’t use and more like a smart move to save yourself tons of money down the line. Apple was caught bricking repaired devices again last year. You don’t hear about these issues happening to other companies.

If you have to pay Apple’s fee to have a fully functional battery, it means Apple can set the price of repair high enough to encourage you to buy another phone instead. This is particularly true for people who don’t live near an Apple Store or authorized reseller, because Apple knows most people would rather buy a new device than be without one for however long it takes to ship the product off and get it back again. This is exactly what Tim Cook complained about when he blamed lower iPhone sales partly on buyers who purchased $29 battery upgrades instead. Battery repairs on the iPhone X, XS, XS Max, and XR are $69, where other battery replacements are $50. All of these little price increases add up. In Apple’s ideal world, third-party repair shops don’t exist. All device repairs and revenue are handled by Apple, at Apple-approved pricing.

I’m not going to go so far as to claim that Apple killed the iPhone SE purely to improve its iPhone average selling price and to increase revenue per iPhone purchase. But I will note, at the very least, that Apple improved both of those metrics as a result of chopping off its bottom-end product family. Data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners in 2018 showed that the iPhone SE sold reasonably well. It wasn’t huge, but it accounted for what looks like 7-8 percent of iPhone sales as of June 2018, roughly on par with the 6S and 7 Plus.

iPhone SE sales weren’t huge, but it definitely had a market.

Knocking out the SE raised the minimum price for an iPhone from $350 to $450. It may also be cheaper for Apple to make newer devices based on the iPhone 7 body rather than the SE, which used the older 5S-style design. Good for Apple? Undoubtedly. Good for its customers? No.

Apple is far from the only company that’s taken an aggressive stance against customer right-to-repair. Console manufacturers shipped hardware with illegal “You cannot open this enclosure without voiding your warranty” stickers for years. John Deere has refused to allow farmers to repair their own tractors. But this is why right to repair legislation is important. Apple tries to frame this issue as one of consumer trust. That’s deeply ironic, considering Apple has repeatedly demonstrated that it cannot be trusted not to sabotage device performance in order to improve its own bottom line. I didn’t used to make that argument, but the company’s conduct during its battery fiasco, combined with Tim Cook’s willingness to blame his own customer base for opting to repair Apple’s screw-up changed my mind.

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