It’s risky for me to boldly state that technology news has quietened down in recent weeks. For one thing, confidently saying that nothing much is going on is the best way to summon up a news event breaking 15 seconds after I hit “send” on this email.
Also, though, I’m currently sitting at home up to my eyeballs in parental leave. While I’m still compulsively keeping up with every tiny news story that breaks in my sector (if I could simply switch off that instinct, I wouldn’t be doing this job), I’m aware that my connection to many of them is less vivid than it used to be when I was desperately trying to find a new angle to move the story on for that day’s paper.
My daughter’s just reached the age where she’s noticed that screens exist, and have moving images on them, and sometimes (too often, if I’m honest) occupy her beloved father’s attention that could be better focused on her.
As with everything in a baby’s life, the solution is simple: chew it. Which is why the story that most caught my eye this week was the news that Apple is, for the first time ever, going to let users repair their own iPhones.
Apple today announced Self Service Repair, which will allow customers who are comfortable with completing their own repairs access to Apple genuine parts and tools. Available first for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 lineups, and soon to be followed by Mac computers featuring M1 chips, Self Service Repair will be available early next year in the US and expand to additional countries throughout 2022. Customers join more than 5,000 Apple Authorized Service Providers (AASPs) and 2,800 Independent Repair Providers who have access to these parts, tools, and manuals.
Apple’s devices are infamously hard to repair. The company decided decades ago that customers like sleek, beautiful devices without a visible screw in sight – even if that means that they have no ability to repair it at home. In 2021, that’s par for the course among consumer technology companies, but once upon a time it was a uniquely Apple proposition: iFixit, a company which provides repair kits and manuals for a host of consumer electronics, got started in 2003 when the site’s founders discovered there were no instructions on how to repair a broken iBook.
Since then, the trade-off has become ever-more stark. That 2003 iBook may have been missing a manual or two, but the computer was largely assembled using open technologies and off-the-shelf parts: if you could work out how to access the hard-drive, RAM or screen, you could probably fix it by swapping them out with another part bought online, or at least cannibalised from a similar machine. But as technology has progressed, that’s become less and less true.
The screen on a top-end iPhone isn’t just an incredibly small, high-resolution display that simply isn’t for sale to normal people; it’s also part of a single unit that includes the front-facing camera, FaceID scanner, microphone and speaker. And if you can, very carefully, separate out those parts, you may still find that your repair fails, as security solutions implemented in the phone’s software reject your new part for fear of tampering.
Over the years, there’s been understandable cynicism about Apple’s motivations. Every person who buys a new iPhone rather than repairing an old one is more money in Apple’s pocket, after all. And every person who is forced to take their phone to the company and pay for the repair directly is an opportunity for it to charge an eye-watering mark-up on the parts and labour. You don’t become the world’s most valuable company by being nice.
For what it’s worth, I think some of the cynicism is probably unfair. For years, consumers really did vote with their wallets, buying smaller, sleeker hardware even if it was held together by superglue rather than screws. Elsewhere, Apple seems to do the right thing when it comes to keeping older hardware working – for instance, iOS 15, the latest version of the company’s operating system, runs on a six-year-old iPhone 6s. For comparison, Google’s Pixel, released the same year, received its final ever update almost two years ago.
The reality seems to be that Apple just doesn’t care about at-home repairability, for good or ill. It may not go out of its way to hinder it, but it certainly hasn’t gone out of its way to help it in the past.
So what’s changed? Why is Apple suddenly willing to ship parts and manuals to users? There’s a simple enough answer, I think: it’s the threat of regulation.
You’ve got to fight for your right … to repair
Apple isn’t the only company to steadily chip away at repairs. Where the iPhone has led, others have followed, in such numbers that “repairable phone” is now a viable niche market for smaller companies such as Fairphone to compete in. And it’s not just tech: tractor company John Deere has become infamous for the restrictions it puts on its vehicles, sold to farmers who are used to being able to tinker with a machine long enough to pass it on to their own children and suddenly find that they can barely even pop the bonnet without a laptop provided by an authorised repair centre.
And so lawmakers around the world have started to propose legislation enshrining a “right to repair”. Those laws run the gamut from mild restrictions preventing companies from actively hindering attempts to repair their products, all the way to strong requirements that companies not only allow repairs, but support and design around the need to be able to fix things at home.
If Apple and its peers want to avoid being hit by those laws, they need to release some of the pressure on lawmakers. Hence the self-repair programme, which is perfectly targeted to quiet the loudest voices. Most people, even with these kits, will be unable – or unwilling – to attempt a repair of an iPhone at home. It’s fiddly work, and for most pressing repairs, such as the screen or motherboard, the parts will still be well north of $100. But if you’ve heard of the “right to repair” movement, you’re probably one of the subsection of society that’s willing to get a “spudger” out in a time of need.
And there will be real benefits for some. If you can’t do without your phone or laptop for even a day, the ability to repair it yourself, rather than drop it off at a centre and get it back 24 hours later, could be meaningfully transformative. And, of course, repairing your own machine also means you don’t have to hand over your password to anyone else – avoiding horror stories like this, from June:
The unnamed woman sent her iPhone for repair on 14 January 2016 to an Apple-approved repair contractor called Pegatron Technology Service in California. Technicians there then uploaded “extremely personal and private material” to the woman’s Facebook account and other internet locations, the documents said.
The videos were uploaded to appear as though the woman herself had shared them on purpose, according to the documents, causing the woman “severe emotional distress”. The woman was made aware of the incident when friends saw the videos and images on Facebook.
News from cryptocurrency land is at its best when it’s dumb fun, and there’s no dumber fun that the failed attempt on the part of more than 10 thousand people to buy a copy of the US constitution:
The document, one of 13 original copies dating from 1787, sold for almost three times its lower estimate of $15m, and more than 260 times the amount it achieved when it last sold for $165,000 in 1988. The bidding at Sotheby’s in New York took eight minutes.
“ConstitutionDAO” had amassed more than £47m, or 11,600 of the cryptocurrency ether, in a few days on its online crowdfunding page. The group, which had committed to putting the document on public display “in the hands of the people”, promised to refund its 17,437 contributors after deducting transaction fees.
The caper was effectively a Twitter meme or Reddit shitpost brought to life – and given a multimillion dollar budget. A small group of crypto fans spotted that the copy of the constitution, the only one in private hands, was about to be sold off, and the instituted a plan to raise funds to buy it and display it in public.
The project was dubbed ConstutionDAO, a spin on a popular form of crypto project called a “decentralised autonomous organisation”. Those projects can be thought of as automated hedge funds, where shareholders have the ability to directly influence the direction of the funds’ activity using contracts built directly into the code that set it up.
But ConstutionDAO had little in common with those. In reality, the project was fatally flawed from day one, by virtue of the simple fact that it had to interact with the real world.
In order to buy the copy of the constitution, the plan stated, a limited company would need to be set up, since a DAO can’t legally own conventional property. That company would then need human directors, and while it could offer shares, they would need to be conventionally allocated, since a cryptocurrency can’t legally act as a security in the US. And then, since the body was in receipt of millions of dollars with a clear and stated aim, even the DAO itself was recentralised, with the original eight founders keeping direct control of how its funds were used in order to prevent someone simply taking control of the organisation and redeploying its cash elsewhere.
When your DAO is DOA
What the thousands of people who crowdfunded the attempt to buy the constitution were actually buying with their money is unclear: minority ownership of an organisation that would not in fact own the constitution, but was controlled by some people who also owned a limited company that hoped to buy the constitution at auction.
The parallels with the wider NFT bubble should be clear. The world of cryptocurrency is great at producing a tangled web of interrelated products and services, but terrible at interacting with anything outside that network: an NFT isn’t ownership of anything but itself, a record on the blockchain proves nothing except the fact that someone wrote it on to the blockchain, and an organisation expressly set up to buy the constitution would not, in fact, own the constitution.
That is, if it had managed to buy the document in the first case. What actually happened is that the group learned that going into an auction with a clear and obvious budget that you are functionally unable to exceed is probably bad strategy: they were outbid by Ken Griffin, the chief executive of the hedge fund Citadel, who went into the auction knowing to the dollar the amount he had to spend to gain a victory over the upstarts.
“The U.S. Constitution is a sacred document that enshrines the rights of every American and all those who aspire to be,” Griffin said in a statement. “That is why I intend to ensure that this copy of our Constitution will be available for all Americans and visitors to view and appreciate in our museums and other public spaces.” He’s placing it in … a museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
As a poetic ending to an attempt to overturn the power structures of the American state, it’s hard to beat.
… until the coda came along. On Tuesday evening, ConstitutionDAO announced it was shutting down entirely. “We know that everyone is eager to hear what the next steps for ConstitutionDAO are, and we’ve been deeply exploring several options for this over the last four days,” the project’s leaders posted. “While we would very much like to have been able to do so, we have determined that building and maintaining an ongoing project is not something that we as a core team are able to support, given the technical and administrative requirements of doing it properly.”
The team encouraged everyone who’d funded the project to apply for refunds, a request that’s easier said than done: for many of the small-dollar donations to the fundraiser, the transaction fees on the ethereum blockchain dwarf the actual amount refunded. Anyone with less than around $100 in the project is likely to see nothing refunded at all.
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• This article was amended on 30 November 2021 to correct a description of the hedge fund Citadel and a misspelling of Ken Griffin’s name.