Apple’s Quiet War on Independent Repairmen
The tech behemoth's near-monopoly power allows it to maintain control over its products even after consumers buy them.
In the past, a Goliath’s strength would be gauged in height measured in cubits, the brass of the helmet, the coat of mail with a weight in thousands of shekels in bronze and a spear’s head weighed in hundreds of shekels of iron. Nowadays, a Goliath corporation can just hire another Goliath, such as the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend, with its 650 lawyers and 19 offices in North America, Europe, and Asia. The firm boasts that “5 of the 10 world’s most valuable brands turn to Kilpatrick Townsend to grow and defend the value of their products and businesses.” One of those “5 of the 10 world’s most valuable brands” was interested in a video made by YouTuber Louis Rossmann.
When Rossmann was contacted by Kilpatrick Townsend on behalf of Apple he felt as if the grim reaper was knocking at his door. An owner of a small business, an Apple devices repair store, a few years back Rossman had started a YouTube channel to cover all things that interested him: Apple device repairs, business advice, personal advice, and occasionally, though more so of late, social or political commentary. The video that had gotten the attention of Apple was one in which Rossmann had showed a schematic of an Apple device and proceeded to show his viewers how they could fix their own device if they faced the same issue. For Apple, the act of showing the schematic on YouTube was a violation of its intellectual copyright. They wanted Rossmann to quietly make the video disappear. Rossmann hired a lawyer, and the lawyer advised that the request was sensible, there was no lawsuit, and thus the reasonable thing was to comply; besides, a genuine effort had been made to butter up Rossmann—the word came that both Kilpatrick Townsend and Apple liked his work. Rossmann thought about the option that he was given. Then he fired his lawyer.
The arrival of Kilpatrick Townsend gave Rossmann another push to get more involved in the Right to Repair movement. Right to Repair is a nationwide effort that aims to use legislation to return to consumers the choice of where and how to fix devices they own. Rossmann argues that what is going on now would be unthinkable just a few decades back. Corporations back then respected the consumers’ right to fix their stuff. Schematics were widely available, you could buy them at the local electronics store, or contact the manufacturer to send them to you. Appliances, like refrigerators, often came with a set of schematics and instructions for how to fix them.
Apple tries to inculcate in the minds of its customers an assumption that devices should only be repaired by the corporation and its controlled network of authorized repair stores. The controlled networks of the authorized repair stores are used to create the illusion of consumer choice while they act in a way of reinforcing and consolidating the corporation’s monopoly over the repair process. Jessa Jones, owner of an independent repair service who lobbies for Right to Repair, testified in Boston that her group up to that point had fixed 30,000 devices, “less than 5 percent” of which “would be considered fixable by authorized repairs.”
Rossmann does not like Apple. Many of his videos are about how the company is screwing, ripping off, torturing, and generally abusing its customers. There are videos where he explains why owning Apple products is a daft idea, or declares that the newest operating system “delivers big kick in the balls to Apple users.” Rossmann has a genuine, deep and merciless view of Apple.
Even knowing that, when I show up to Rossmann’s office for an interview I place an iPhone next to him to record our conversation. Then I pull out an iPad with my questions and an Apple pencil to jot things down. I raise my arm, pull up my sleeve, and look at an Apple watch, saying “we are on time.” I was looking for a reaction, but Rossmann remains calm, cool, and collected. There is a slight smirk forming in his face and that’s all I am going to get.
To explain how he makes a living off Apple repairs while at the same time he strongly dislikes the company and its products Rossmann tells me, “Oncologists don’t like cancer very much, they still try to help people with it.” What drives him nuts, he says, is when people pay for a device with a design flaw and are told at Apple’s Genius Bar that the problem is how they use that device. “Six months later a recall program would come out and they [customers] would bring it up [to Apple] and say can you fix this, sorry can’t. People would get screwed over and over again and still buy it.”
There are also problems that seem never to be fixed. Rossmann talks of a four-year-old design flaw in a 2016 Mac where a “52 volts of the line for the screen power is right next to the image line that’s one volt” creating serious problems for the owners. Often, it takes a long time for Apple to acknowledge such issues and sometimes it never does. A couple of days after our interview a U.S. District Judge sided with the plaintiffs against Apple saying that “Apple knowingly sold 2016-17 MacBook Pro models with ‘Flexgate’ display defect.”
Talking about the abuses of Apple is one of the reasons that Rossmann’s YouTube channel has been successful, with now more than 1.5 million subscribers. If Apple wants a video down Rossmann would like them to file a copyright claim. In doing so Apple would have to make its reasons public. “They would have to say ‘We object to Louis showing where the fuse is’,” he said.“I want you to publicly state on the record you don’t want your customers to know where the keyboard fuse is.”
A study from 2011 found “that customers who used independent auto repair shops spent about 24 percent less on repairs each year.” That very important price differential was achieved while the small repair shops faced substantial artificial barriers in doing business. In the tech realm, Apple uses its enormous financial heft as a purchaser of parts in order to force its suppliers in contracts that prohibit them from selling parts to independent repair stores. Rossmann has to get on Skype with people around the globe that specialize in part dumpster dives in order to find parts that suppliers are not permitted to sell him. At other times he has to buy a whole device only to retrieve a single chip out of it. One can only imagine the savings for the consumers if an open market were allowed to operate when it comes to parts, schematics, and diagrams.
A 2018 show by CBC, the Canadian public broadcast service, highlighted Apple’s predatory practices. A MacBook is taken to an Apple store for repair as CBC wanted to test the pervasive perception that Apple’s customers are “wildly overcharged.” The Apple store employee informs the undercover journalist that fixing the computer will cost 1,200 Canadian dollars. They might as well get a new computer. Then CBC takes the same computer with the same problem to Rossmann in New York.
It takes a couple of seconds for Rossmann to figure out the problem and about a minute and a half to fix it. There is “a pin that is sticking out.” The pin is put in place and the connector is plugged in. Problem solved and zero charge. The show goes on to show the many ways that Apple impedes repairs. Special-made non-standard screws so the devices cannot be easily opened, gluing batteries that do not need to be glued in, and so on. Then there is the issue of planned obsolescence, where older iPhones become significantly slower after a system update. All to make independent repairs much more difficult; all to make the purchase of a new device the more practical option.
The size of a corporation like Apple allows it to shield itself from the consequences of the policies it advocates. Backing leftist policies at home while stashing the cash abroad allows for virtue signaling at the best possible side of the profit margin. Apple’s tiny competitors on the device repair space don’t have those options. They cannot do their work in a cheap sweatshop abroad; they cannot direct their profits to a bank account in Ireland.
Apple’s predatory practices of today become the industry standard of tomorrow. At least up to 2019, Apple captured 66 percent of all profits of the mobile phone industry globally. The corporation that makes the most profit as it sells you a new device goes out of its way to restrict and squeeze every possible penny out of the repair process. How can any other corporation competing in the same space, making much less money than Apple with the sale of new devices, justify to its board and shareholders selling devices that can be repaired easily and cheaply? The mobile phone business is a tough one, with Samsung getting just 17 percent of profits, and everybody else straggling with what’s left. On April 5 LG announced that it was exiting “the incredibly competitive mobile phone sector.”
Apple uses acquisitions to eliminate competition, acquiring future competitors or acquiring technology that could have been available to its present competitors. GlobalData, an information services company, found that Apple “bought more AI companies than anyone else between 2016 and 2020.” When it comes to independent repair stores, Apple employs a different strategy. It tries to cancel them as an idea, as a way of doing business, as a legitimate consumer choice. Planned obsolescence is coming to the independent repair store. It is interesting how Apple responded to the aforementioned news report by CBC. What it chose to say in its own defense was that “their customers are best served by Apple’s certified experts using genuine parts.” Apparently, the contractual restrictions Apple has imposed on its suppliers are what makes it better at this.
In the past few years Right to Repair supporters have gathered in state legislatures across America trying to establish a competitive marketplace for repairs. Some of Rossmann’s videos take us to these initiatives. The Right to Repair crew don’t seem to fit in the halls of power, in their jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies, a congregation of misfits. How unaccustomed we have become to the visual of ordinary people trying to persuade their representatives. There are legislators in the building, corporate lobbyists and then these people. These people are the only ones losing money by being there. As Rossmann goes around with his microphone we meet the guy with the repair store in the middle of nowhere; we meet Jessa Jones, the stay-at-home mom with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, who started fixing devices after her toddler twins had flushed her brand new iPhone down the toilet; we meet the guy who was stocking shelves at Walmart in the early hours of the morning and just made it in.
On the other side, the corporate lobbying side, all is proper and posh. The right shoes, the right ties, shirts, and suits. The proud cogs of the machine. At the legislatures they feel right at home and it shows. They know they can kill the Right to Repair bill in committee. Nothing much to worry about. Their statements are generic, formulaic, vehemently nonspecific, and boring to the point of suicide. Rossmann is trying now to go directly to the people with a GoFundMe that has raised hundreds of thousands in a matter of days. Nevertheless, the future of the Right to Repair movement and the independent repair shop seems uncertain.
What is not uncertain is what it is all about: The right to repair is nothing more than the effort to reinstate the individual’s rights of ownership. It is a movement so contrary to the new subscription model of life, where you are always one payment away from losing it all. An environment of centralized control, where everything is always supervised, curated and monitored by a managerial class increasingly skeptical of the individual will. We are being conditioned to a state of digital serfdom, as if it has been algorithmically dictated that individual choice and individuality are no more. The Right to Repair is the glitch to the propertyless future before us.
Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.