Apple’s repair policy is a far cry from its customer-first philosophy

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Apple’s repair policy is a far cry from its customer-first philosophy
Apple’s customer support is a topic so expansive, you can write a book about it and it will rival War and Peace not only in length but in the amount of drama it will contain as well. Stories about people’s experience with Apple service representatives cover the whole spectrum of human emotions: from the joy of receiving a newer model as a replacement device for the faulty one to the anger of not getting any help at all or having to pay hundreds of dollars to fix an insignificant problem, you can have your pick.

But here, we’re going to focus on two things: Apple’s stance on data recovery from broken products and its attitude towards unauthorized repair shops.

When your Apple device has a problem that needs to be fixed, generally you have three options. One is to give it to Apple for repair, either at a store or by mail. Another is to go to an Apple Authorized Service Provider, which are businesses that follow Apple’s strict rules on what can and cannot be repaired and use original Apple parts. Lastly, you can go to an unauthorized repair shop.

We’ll get to that last option in a minute, but first, let’s talk about what happens to any personal data such as photos and videos that you have on your device.

Apple clearly states that no matter the type of repair, there’s no guarantee that the data on your device will remain intact and you should have it backed up either on iCloud or on your computer via iTunes (here's our guides on how to do it). This policy is not unique to Apple. Some manufacturers even suggest to wipe the data on the device yourself, if possible, before handing it out for repairs.

Even without needing to take your phone for repairs, you back up your data locally or on the cloud regularly. For most users, that’s common sense.

However, with a userbase as vast as that of the iPhone (and a big part of it not tech savvy), it’s bound to be that some individuals won’t back up their data. Whether it’s due to lack of technical skills (as ridiculous as it may sound to some) or plain forgetfulness, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that occasionally, a user will end up with a device that’s not working, and precious personal data on it that can’t be retrieved via conventional methods.

If an iPhone dies, does the data go with it? 

About a month ago, CBC News released a report about a couple that was in such a situation and what their experience was. With literally thousands of photos from a trip stuck on an iPhone that took a dive in a pond and stopped working, the couple naturally turned to Apple’s tech support for help. But as we already explained, Apple has no responsibility for personal data on the iPhone, so they got the cold shoulder and got told that the data is lost forever.

The couple didn’t give up, however, and desperate to get back the lost photos reached out to a private business that specializes in Apple products repair. Long story short, thanks to the skills of a woman that taught herself how to do that for a living, all the data was retrieved. The bill was $300 that the couple was more than happy to pay in exchange for the memories of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Now, of course, no one is expecting Apple to promote to its customer third-party services it’s not affiliated with. However, it’s not being passive about them either. Reports from multiple repair shop owners that have dealt with Apple say the company is taking a very aggressive stance against what they do. According to them, on Apple’s official message board, posts that mention services like the one described above are deleted and users persistent with their recommendations are banned. Instead, Apple promotes replies to queries about potential data retrieval that say it’s not possible. 

Interestingly enough, in the same thread we've screenshotted above, there's another reply that states:
"While Apple doesn’t provide data recovery services there are legitimate companies that do specialize in that field that have the required environment set up and the expertise. If you contact Apple support they should be able to give you the names of the most well known for your country and their website information. Keep in mind though that data recovery services can be fairly expensive and is never a guarantee." (note: it wasn't deleted!) Sounds quite informative and helpful, right? Yet despite this obviously being what the original poster is looking for, the "Apple recommended" answer was one that doesn't mention anything of the sort. 

We decided to test what will happen if we ask for advice about recovering photos from a water-damaged iPhone ourselves. One reply was "If the phone won't turn on there is no way to recover anything from it." while another user commented with "There are third parties who do data recovery. They are usually pretty pricey. I cant endorse any as I have no experience with them." The latter one wasn't deleted but there was also no "Apple recommended" reply, so our inquiry might have slipped under the radar.

Giving some insight about Apple's practices was an anonymous Apple employee working in customer support. In an email to the aforementioned repair shop he (or she) stated that while the official response they're trained to give is that data from damaged devices is gone if there's no backup, if a customer asks specifically about data recovery services, they should tell them that there are companies who offer such services but they must be contacted separately (read: find them yourself). 

Why is there a discrepancy in the information people are given based on who they ask is unclear. And while it's good that at least some Apple employees acknowledge third-party data recovery services, if you know the magic words that trigger the right response, chances are you already know the answer. We reached out to Apple for clarification on their stance on the matter but so far there's been no response.

Either way, such data salvage jobs aren't always successful. Sometimes the damage is too deep within the hardware. But if outsiders can determine confidently enough that the extraction is possible and sink in the time to do it, for the hardware's manufacturer, it should be even easier.

What’s frustrating here is that if willing, Apple can do what these independent repair shops are doing more efficiently than them. The company can afford to have a team specialized in data recovery and charge a hefty premium those desperate enough to use it. Of course, it’s not feasible for Apple to have employees spend hours, if not days, on every phone that hasn’t been backed up just to recover a bunch of cat pictures. But why not have the option for those for which price is no concern?
Granted, other phone makers don't offer such services either, but they're also not as smug about their customer experience to begin with. Despite being a company which, according to its CEO, has the user as the primary focus, when it comes to data recovery, Apple does not provide the best advice to its customers when they need help the most. Instead, it chooses to wash its hands with the Terms of Service and let the customer live with the guilt of not having backed up their device. If there's one company that has the resources and infrastructure to take its customer support to the next level, setting an example in the industry, it's Apple. It seems then that what's missing is the will to do it. Weird, considering the Apple ecosystem is advertised to be a user-friendliness heaven. 

Why is Apple against letting other people do what it doesn’t want to?

It’s logical to think then that if Apple can’t be bothered with such complex tasks, then it should let others get their hands dirty. But as we mentioned already, that’s not the case. The thing is that Apple doesn’t want any outsiders tаmpering with its devices, period. And no, authorized repair shops aren’t outsiders. They’re tightly in Apple’s grip.

Apple can’t allow anyone, no matter the issue, being sent to an unauthorized shop. There are two main reasons for that. First, going to one and becoming familiar with the services they offer, there’s a good chance that it will become your go-to place for out-of-warranty repairs. And such repairs are notoriously expensive if Apple performs them, so much so that people may prefer to buy a new device altogether. That’s something the company has often received criticism for.

Admittedly, the risk of a shoddy repair job is greater with third-party shops, but it exists even with Apple’s own services. Stories about bad Apple customer support experiences can be found all over the internet.

The other reason Apple wants you to stay away from unauthorized repair shops is that they use unlicensed parts

In China, you can literally make your own iPhone from spare parts, source: Strange Parts

And while you probably won’t notice if an internal component is not genuine, a cheaper display, for example, can make your experience with the iPhone worse, which users unaware of the parts situation might blame Apple for. Such blame is not misplaced, however, because Apple refuses to sell genuine parts to unauthorized repair shops and is trying to stop them from using any others as well. The company has used tactics such as blocking incoming parts at customs and rolling out software updates that check for non-genuine parts. And that's not counting all the legal action it has taken against unauthorized repair shops. Speaking of which... 

Right to repair? Only if forced to

Apple, alongside other tech companies like Samsung and Microsoft, is also actively lobbying against the so-called “Right to Repair” bills that many states are trying to pass.

In short, these bills are meant to force companies to provide diagnostic tools and genuine parts at fair prices to third-party repair shops. This will also make it easier for individuals to do the repairs themselves, just by following guides like the ones made by iFixit and other popular websites. One of Apple’s counterarguments is that allowing users to open and repair their devices may lead to injuries — from punctured batteries, for example.

This may sound amusing to some since everyone who’s serious about repairing a phone will surely know the most basic thing about its battery. In general, senior government officials are not expected to have a very in-depth grasp of technology (FCC and similar agencies excluded), so their opinions on such matters can easily be swayed in a certain direction by the right people, i.e. lobbyists.

As a result, so far, the corporations’ efforts to prevent “Right to Repair” bills from becoming laws have been successful. In court, however, the situation is quite the opposite. Apple has lost several lawsuits it filed against independent repair shops for using counterfeit parts. It seems at least some officials think that people deserve the choice of third-party repairs including all the risks involved.

Proponents of the movement have a strong backing as well, however, besides the will of the common man, and it seems that things are slowly moving in the right direction. Recently, a leaked internal Apple presentation showed that the company is considering a new tier of repair partners called Apple Genuine Parts Repair. Participating businesses will have access not only to original parts but to diagnostics tools and even Apple Certified Training as well, without the restrictions on the types of repairs they can perform. There’s no official statement about the program, but experts think it’s part of Apple’s plan to comply with the “Right to Repair” bill if it becomes a law.

If or when that will become a reality is still unclear as efforts vary from state to state. However, it’s suspected that if the bill passes in one state, it will quickly change things as companies will prefer to offer the same services to customers in all states. Hopefully, that means that Apple products’ repairs will soon become not only cheaper but of higher quality as well.

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