On Saturday, my wife delicately removed the phone from my hands. It was making me seem a little crazed, she said. I had been on it all day. Closing on a story, refreshing Slack, scrolling through social media, checking my email. I had just texted a friend to recommend an accessory for a vacuum cleaner; it felt like it demanded my urgent attention, the way everything else on the screen did. “i got a horse hair attachment for thr vacuum it js so amazjng,” I had typed, just like that.
Like everyone, I spend a lot of my time looking at my phone—working, tapping, buying cleaning supplies. This habit helps manufacturers sell a lot of new phones every year: Because we effectively live on these things, there is a temptation to keep them current through regular upgrades. Every September is new-iPhone month. Apple is expected to release the iPhone 15 in just a few weeks. But this launch will feel a little different from the ones that have preceded it, perhaps a bit less urgent. That is because it follows a surprising concession from Apple that you don’t really need to buy a new phone.
In a significant public shift, Apple declared this week that it is supporting a bill in California, S.B. 244, that would make the iPhone and other consumer electronics last longer. The company is, after years of opposition, explicitly endorsing the “right to repair”—the idea that people should be able to access parts and information to fix their own devices, should they so choose.
S.B. 244 is far from the first bill seeking to address this topic, but it is the most significant, which makes the turnabout all the more surprising. Apple has lobbied against these laws in the past, reasoning that to allow independent repairs risks exposing trade secrets or creates cybersecurity threats. (As Grist notes, the FTC didn’t buy these explanations when writing its 2021 report on “anti-competitive repair restrictions.”) Meanwhile, the activists and politicians who make up the right-to-repair movement have waged a public campaign for years, and it’s paid off. Last year, Apple rolled out a “self-service repair program” that allows customers to buy or rent tools to repair iPhones and Macs. Supporting the new bill amounts to a major surrender from the tech giant—perhaps a sign that its position was no longer politically viable.
“Today’s reversal shows that when we work together to address bad trends, we can win changes,” Nathan Proctor, head of the right-to-repair campaign at the United States Public Interest Research Group, told me. In response to an inquiry about Apple’s stance on S.B. 244, a company spokesperson told me, “Apple supports California’s Right to Repair Act so all Californians have even greater access to repairs while also protecting their safety, security, and privacy.”
The impacts of S.B. 244 will extend beyond the Golden State. Historically, Apple and other manufacturers have liked to control information, parceling out repair equipment and associated material only to authorized vendors. If you cracked your iPhone’s screen or the battery junked out, your best option has been to take the unit back to Apple and pay whatever the company asks. This has resulted in accusations of higher costs and fewer options for consumers; independent repair shops exist, but they have had to scrounge for aftermarket or refurbished parts to make things work. Should the bill become law, which seems likely, Apple and other manufacturers will be required to provide information, parts, and tools to repair their products for years after release, all of which could trickle down to other states—which might, in turn, take inspiration from S.B. 244 for their own legislation. Third parties will be better equipped to service an iPhone long after its release date.
Even if many people wouldn’t want to take the time to crack open their own phone and mess around with its finicky innards, there is a sense that a principle has been violated: If you own something, something that you have paid for with a lot of your money, shouldn’t you have ultimate say over how that thing operates? If you want to put a slice of deep-dish pizza in your toaster, you can put a slice of deep-dish pizza in your toaster. Then, when your toaster breaks, you can fix your toaster. Repair keeps a machine running, keeps you from spending money on a new one, keeps trash from piling up in the world. There is no such thing as a responsibly manufactured phone. They are wasteful, destructive little things, demanding rare-earth elements for their construction, to say nothing of the carbon emissions, the toxic by-products from the mining. Apple, to its credit, has made progress using recycled materials, including rare-earth elements, in its new devices. Even so, “if we buy a thing, why can’t it last for 10 years or 20 years?” Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit and a longtime advocate for right-to-repair laws, told me.
Apple and other manufacturers do still hold a lot of power in determining a phone’s life span. An iPhone does not get arthritis. It does not get cancer, or blood disease. But it does eventually die. The battery degrades. You accidentally smash it on some concrete steps. Or maybe the phone is laid low in a different way: Apple issues an iOS update that leads your older device to slow, its apps to stutter and crash. The internet has transformed the meaning of ownership in complex ways. Modern technology tends to require software updates to function; Apple might release an iOS update, or Netflix a new version of its app, that doesn’t work unless you buy a new gadget. The right to repair governs your device’s physical form. But there is quite a lot more to our interactions with these things.
I turned the reality over in my head as I talked to Wiens about the news of Apple’s reversal. It will be easier now to keep my iPhone running for years to come, if I choose. Still, so much is out of my control: I can replace a battery, swap out a camera lens. But in the next few years, some update will likely make my iPhone obsolete. Next month’s iOS 17 is not designed to work with anything older than 2018’s iPhone XS. You can stretch these things sometimes, but only to a point. Apple has stopped sending security updates for anything older than the iPhone 5S, effectively a nail in the coffin: An 11-year-old smartphone might seem ancient by today’s standards, but, well, you did spend a lot of money on it. It did take a lot out of the earth when it was born.
Wiens understands. “This is right to repair 1.0,” he told me. His organization plans to push for laws that govern software, too: “We need security updates available for decades, not single-digit years.” There is more work to be done. There will still be millions upon millions of new iPhones assembled every year. But the temptation to buy one just faded a bit.