Cracked iPhone screen? Apple expands secretive repair service worldwide

Fixing cracked mobile phone screens is a multi-billion-dollar global business. Apple customers will soon have more choice as the company looks to reduce long wait times for iPhone repairs at its retail stores. By the end of this year, Apple will to put its proprietary machines for mending cracked iPhone glass into about 400 authorised third-party repair centers in 25 countries, company executives told Reuters.

The move is a major shift for Apple; the company had previously restricted use of its so-called Horizon Machine to its nearly 500 retail stores and mail-in repair centers; and it has guarded its design closely. The change also comes as eight US states have launched “right to repair” bills aimed at loosening  the tightly controlled repair networks of Apple and other high-tech manufacturers. Apple said legislative pressure was not a factor in its decision to share its technology.

The initial roll-out aims to put machines in 200, or about 4% , of Apple’s 4,800 authorised service providers worldwide over the next few months. The company plans to double that figure by the end of the year. “We’ve been on a quest to expand our reach,” said Brian Naumann, senior director of service operations at Apple. He said repair wait times have grown at some of the company’s busiest retail stores. Pilot testing started a year ago. In addition to the first in Miami, a few machines already are operating at third-party repair centers in California’s Bay Area, London, Shanghai and Singapore. Shops in some countries where Apple has no retail presence will also be early recipients, including locations in Colombia, Norway and South Korea.

Many third-party outlets replace cracked iPhone screens and Apple says its customers can get their devices fixed at non-authorised shops without voiding their warranties – as long as the technician caused no damage. But the Horizon Machine is needed to remedy the trickiest mishaps, such as when the fingerprint sensor attached to the back of the glass gets damaged when a phone is dropped. For security, only Apple’s fix-it machine can tell the iPhone’s processor to recognise a replacement sensor. Without it, the iPhone won’t unlock with the touch of a finger. Banking apps that require a fingerprint won’t work either, including the Apple Pay digital wallet.

Apple has sold more than 1 billion iPhones worldwide, many to customers who don’t live near an Apple Store or an authorised third-party repair center. For fixes, many have turned to small outlets and independent technicians that now dominate the trade. Research firm IBISWorld estimates the global cell phone repair business generates about $4bn in revenue per year. Many of these entrepreneurs do good work. Some don’t. All use copycat parts because Apple, like other major manufacturers, doesn’t supply original parts or repair manuals to anyone but authorised service partners.

Big companies defend this arrangement as the only way they can guarantee high-quality repair work and keep hackers away from the proprietary software that makes their products tick. Consumer advocates, however, say their aim is to wring outsized profits from repairs. Independent technicians often charge less than the cost of a factory fix. Enter right-to-repair bills. New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming have introduced legislation looking to aid small shops and do-it-yourself tinkerers. These proposed measures would require manufacturers to supply repair manuals, diagnostic tools and authentic replacement parts at fair prices to independent technicians and the general public.

Apple, heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and medical device maker Medtronic have lobbied against New York’s bill. In Nebraska, Apple sent its state and local lobbying chief Steve Kester to visit the Republican lawmaker sponsoring that state’s measure. “Apple is telling me this is a bad thing because you’re going to have a mecca for hackers in Nebraska,” State Sen. Lydia Brasch said of Kester’s February visit. Apple hasn’t commented on the bills, but a trade group it belongs to contends the Nebraska measure would force the company to divulge how it secures sensitive data on the iPhone. “Think about how much of our personal lives are in this device,” said Mike Lanigan, head engineer for Apple’s service efforts.

Apple allowed Reuters to view and photograph the machines in action at a lab near its Cupertino, California headquarters. Until now, Apple had never formally acknowledged the Horizon Machine’s existence.