Apple backs down in DIY iPhone 13 screen repair dispute

A firmware update will settle the screen-swap scuffle, Apple says.

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Apple has once again run into a problem by making things difficult for independent repair shops to fix or replace things in the iPhone. This time the issue is the iPhone 13 screen and Face ID facial recognition, but Apple says it will address the problem with an upcoming firmware update.

Apple's latest collision with the DIY repair industry concerns screen replacement on the iPhone 13, which breaks Face ID unless a little control chip from the original display is transferred to the new screen. It's all reminiscent of Apple's Error 53 fiasco with the iPhone 6 and replacement Touch ID sensors.

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The iPhone 13 issue was raised last week by right-to-repair activist iFixit, which found that replacing the phone's screen completely disables Face ID authentication. Apple released the iPhone 13 in September.

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While a screen replacement on the iPhone 13 is not impossible, Apple's screen chip makes it harder, requiring special equipment to find and transfer the chip. 

On iOS 15, users will see an error message about Face ID if the screen is replaced without this chip. Apple, historically, has argued that its restrictions on replacement components are there for security reasons.

"This is a dark day for fixers, both DIY and professional. One of the most common phone repairs that could once be done with hand tools now requires a microscope," wrote iFixit's Kevin Purdy

iFixit is lobbying for companies like Apple to provide its proprietary software to repairers outside of authorised Apple repair shops in order to fix damaged components.     

But Apple told The Verge that it will release a firmware update soon that means iPhone 13 owners don't need to transfer the chip for Face ID to continue working after changing the screen. It's notable that the screen isn't part of the iPhone's camera setup that enables Face ID facial recognition.

Independent repair shops can join Apple's Independent Repair Program (IRP), but that's also an expensive option. 

Screen replacements are a major source of revenue for repair shops and Apple, which charges about $400 for a new screen -- unless you buy the $149 AppleCare+ for two years, in which case it costs just $29 to repair a screen. In Europe it costs €29 for screen or back glass damage, and €99 for any other damage.

iFixit has been gunning for Apple and other hardware makers for several years now over repairability issues.

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Purdy reckons Apple's upcoming but unspecified update is a tactical win for the repair industry.

"This is a tactical achievement for the repair market, but it's an endless fight until the battlefield changes. Apple -- and the many companies it inspires -- will advance again with more parts lock-downs, more feature reductions, more reasons why only their profitable repair centers can do this work," he writes.

"Repair shops are still looking at a future that involves more microsoldering, more time, and possibly tighter profit margins, as they compete against a company that can fix its own firmware blocks from the cloud."