The biggest threat to repair is no longer hostile hardware. Today, many independent repair shop owners are most worried about the trend in electronics manufacturing known as “parts pairing.” This term refers to the software barriers used by electronics manufacturers to prevent consumers, fixers, and repair pros from replacing parts the way we have for decades. Harvesting spare parts from defunct devices for use in other, salvageable devices is an integral part of the repair landscape—one that is endangered by the growing prevalence of parts pairing. And parts pairing is encroaching on our devices quickly.
What Parts Pairing Looks Like in Practice
Let’s say you have an iPhone, and your battery is getting old. Your friend has a phone of the same model with a shattered screen and malfunctioning buttons. Great! They give you their old phone so you can harvest the battery. You swap batteries flawlessly but, lo and behold, when you turn the phone on there’s a strange new notification. “Important Battery Message,” it reads, “Unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple battery.”
That may seem strange, considering the battery you just installed is an identical, Apple-branded battery. Even more galling, the notification sticks around for days, popping up again and again, even after you dismiss it. In the “Settings” menu, where you used to see available capacity and charging settings, lives an ominous warning: “Health information not available for this battery.”
No matter how expertly you may install that battery, you lose features and you’re stuck with dubious warnings. Of course, when Apple does the same procedure, they have access to the button that makes those problems go away. And therein lies the core issue of parts pairing.
Imagine for a moment that another piece of technology, say, your car, behaved this way. Imagine that all oil changes needed dealership attention and an in-house brand of oil. Imagine that your DIY weekend oil change, or your usual mechanic’s handiwork, resulted in dashboard warnings about unauthorized oil. Oh, and your manufacturer remotely disabled the “check oil” light so you can’t tell when you’ll need another change—all to discourage you from going anywhere but the dealer for oil changes again.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. A “check oil” light is integral to the use and maintenance of a car. Why should a manufacturer dictate the use of a product someone else owns? Well, it turns out that the hypothetical car nightmare is a reality for many other devices.
Just a few years ago HP was caught discouraging use of non-HP brands of printer ink with fake error messages. GE fridge owners have had to come up with workarounds to avoid error messages when using off-brand water filters. Even Keurig once tried to police what brand of coffee you put in your own coffee maker.
Now let’s expand the idea of these digital locks outside of consumer appliances and ask: what happens when they’re put into devices necessary for the supply chain? Well, it’s been happening for a while now in the agricultural sector and it can wreak havoc on farmers. In the farming equipment manufactured by John Deere, for example, there are a variety of possible malfunctions that can trigger the machines’ dreaded “limp mode”. Limp mode renders the machine unable to operate normally; until the error message is fixed most functions beyond basic movement are disabled. It wouldn’t be a bad safety measure on its own, but the necessary software Deere uses to diagnose and clear the errors isn’t publicly available. By limiting the use of their repair software Deere has created an artificially high demand that leaves farmers on long waiting lists to get necessary gear fixed. What might be a simple fix otherwise can then set farmers’ planting schedules behind or leave their crops to rot in the field while they wait for repairs to be done on Deere’s timetable. Meanwhile, Deere gets the opportunity to set high prices to fix the problem because they don’t have any competition. Deere is far from the only one guilty of using this strategy. You’ll notice OEMs holding necessary software hostage as a recurring theme here.
So why do manufacturers gatekeep repair and replacements if it annoys customers, violates laws, and gets them sued? The same reason they make most anti-repair choices: profit. What do we all lose as a consequence? Freedom of choice.
Serialized = Unswappable
Manufacturers have been making anti-repair design choices for a long time, but they’ve come a long way since the introduction of the pentalobe screw. DIY repairers are no strangers to finding inventive workarounds, but barriers to repair have gotten a lot more complex, and a lot more digital—enter serialized parts and software locks.
“Serialization” is quite common; manufacturers across industries use them for things like quality control, keeping track of inventory, and combating theft. Electronics manufacturers do the same, but rather than printing a number on a part physically, many of the components in modern devices have their serial numbers recorded digitally, within the component itself.
Associating a part with a digital serial number is not, on its own, harmful to repair. In fact, having an exact inventory of parts for your device can make repairs easier—which is why we were glad when Valve started including parts’ serial numbers in the Steam Deck settings. However, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have found a tricky way of using serial numbers to limit repairs even when swapping identical, official parts. Certain parts in devices contain tiny microchips, some as small as a grain of rice, called “microcontrollers” that perform computations and store data such as serial numbers. These microcontrollers communicate information between the part they are attached to (like a battery or face scanner) and the motherboard at the heart of the device.
Microcontrollers have been a benign presence in our devices for years. But now, as part of normal operation, your tech may do a roll-call and ask all those chips to report their numbers. If a part with an“incorrect” serial number is found in place of the original? Say goodbye to features like fingerprint scanning or battery health information and hello to persistent error messages. Suddenly benign serialization morphs into pernicious parts pairing.
The manufacturer now has the power to decide which parts you are allowed to put in your own device. Need a new iPhone screen or battery? You’ll have to go to Apple (or one of their authorized dealers) and pay a premium for official replacement parts. In one particularly egregious instance of pairing by Apple, unauthorized replacement of an iPhone 13 display would lead FaceID to cease working even though that model’s display isn’t even attached to the FaceID illuminator, as previous models were. Apple—and only Apple—can reset that device’s software to recognize the new part, cease error messages, and restore full functionality.
Now if this apparent paranoia was limited to non-original (aka third-party) parts, some caution may be understandable—of course Apple doesn’t want a lower quality brand of battery to make their phones look bad. But these errors apply to 100% legitimate parts directly from the manufacturers themselves. The only thing “missing” in these cases is a secret serial number only they know. And as a note, if third-party parts are good enough for the multi-ton vehicles hurtling down public roadways, you’d think they’d suffice for your phone, right?
Some Parts Pairing History
In the early days of part swapping errors, we tried to give Apple the benefit of the doubt—after all they could simply be bugs. A number of these issues, like the aforementioned iPhone 13 debacle, have been fixed by Apple (after some bad press). But then they just kept happening. “The trend is clear,” Chloé Mikolajczak wrote for the European Right to Repair campaign’s site, “while in 2015 only 2 iPhone parts were serialized, in 2020 that number had increased to 9 with the majority being non-replaceable by anyone but the OEM without loss of functionality.”
Other phone manufacturers’ products have been caught behaving suspiciously after parts swaps as well. In 2021 repair YouTuber Hugh Jeffreys demonstrated this when he swapped Samsung Galaxy A51 parts between two of the devices. Despite the swapped parts being identical genuine parts from Samsung, both phones lost functions related to their fingerprint scanning—until Jeffreys rolled back to an older security update. With the older software the fingerprint scanning suddenly worked just fine regardless of which parts had started out in which phone. Whether it was an intentional repair restriction or a bug, repair suffers. But bugs can be fixed.
We contacted both Jeffreys and Samsung to try to ascertain which it was; a bug or a feature. Maybe in the time since the video’s release the issue affecting the phones Jeffreys worked on had been resolved in a future update? Unfortunately Jeffreys is no longer in possession of the phones he used in his parts-swapping and security update rollback experiment so we couldn’t confirm whether that was the case. When asked for comment Samsung’s representative stated:
“I’m unfamiliar with the specific variables that could have come into play with this repair or the unsubstantiated comments from Mr. Jeffrey. What I can tell you is that there is no requirement to pair parts on our smartphones. If a repair were conducted correctly, a device would not lose functionality.”
While we’re happy to hear that the restrictions were not purposeful, restrictions were demonstrated and we’d have hoped to see more interest in resolving the problem. Given the phones’ full functionality after rolling back the update, it would seem Jeffreys did in fact conduct the repair correctly. This leaves us to wonder what exactly caused the malfunction, if it is still occurring on people’s repaired phones, and if so whether there are plans to rectify it. We welcome further insight from Samsung if they have more to share on the subject.
Pairing Issues Outside Of Phones
Parts pairing impacts more than just phones, too. The Xbox One console launched with its disk reader paired to its motherboard as a piracy prevention measure. The console would check for counterfeit disks, and in turn the motherboard would ensure that the disk drive itself hadn’t been tampered with. The unfortunate side effect being, as stated by Microsoft themselves, “If your Xbox One optical disk drive broke, you can’t take someone else’s optical disk drive and plug it in. It won’t work. These two things have to be paired together and only our factories can pair them.” Sourcing both a functional disk drive and its paired motherboard is not an easy task. Microsoft itself does not sell replacement parts, and third-party sellers can’t make properly-credentialed parts on their own, so the only option for a DIY fixer is the second-hand market. Optical drives are a very common point of failure, so the chances of finding an Xbox broken enough to use for parts but with both motherboard and disk drive intact are vanishingly slim.
The result? Lots of otherwise functional consoles adding to our planet’s e-waste.
Is Parts Pairing Ever Justified?
Clearly manufacturers are getting something out of serialization. But are consumers? The manufacturers would have you believe that parts pairing isn’t just convenient for them, but necessary for everyone. A few arguments for manufacturer-controlled repair, and therefore the serialization that allows repair tracking, are as follows:
“Consumers Need Protection From Bad Repairs”
Last year a lobbyist representing a number of OEMs (including Google, Samsung, and Apple) argued before the Nevada legislature that locking repairs down to approved technicians and genuine parts is necessary for them to safeguard consumers’ security against “unvetted third parties”.
As far as security concerns go, no repair provider is immune to bad actors taking advantage of their position, not even Apple-authorized ones or official Google repair centers. The issue of personal privacy, especially in light of these examples, is a prime argument for consumer-controlled repairs. And if that isn’t possible, then taking steps to secure your data—be it via an option like Samsung Repair Mode or a backup and reset—before taking in your device is a smart option regardless of who is doing your repair. Encouraging these practices seems like an obvious win for privacy-minded companies like Apple.
Speaking of privacy, what about parts that use biometric data like fingerprints? Would consumer repairs be safe, or is OEM-authorized repair the only way to keep your phone protected? Especially security-minded consumers may have concerns regarding the possibility of doctored replacement parts. As mentioned earlier, Microsoft worried about this same issue from a piracy angle. With phones and other personal devices worries stem from a personal data security angle. For example, if a bad actor could move a scanner that had been tampered with into your device and then log in with it that could be a problem for your information and security.
However, if your smartphone (like many) requires you to set a PIN, password, or pattern as a back-up method before allowing you to set up biometric unlocking, this problem already has a solution. After a scanner swap your device is still perfectly capable of verifying that you are in fact the owner and unlocking via the back-up methods, so once that back-up code has been entered why not allow access to the necessary software to pair the scanner to the device and restore function? Google has already taken the step to provide publicly available software to re-pair replacement fingerprint scanners for their Pixel devices so access to the software can’t be that serious of a security risk. Their tool isn’t the only possible solution, but it’s a far more repair-friendly one than Apple’s. It also shows that manufacturers could give us tools to perform necessary fixes on our devices. In most cases they just choose not to in favor of slapping a prohibitive price tag on performing it as a service.
“Repair is Dangerous”
Another common refrain from Apple specifically is the “importance of service by trained technicians using genuine Apple parts” as a customer safety issue.
Well, if repair was really as dangerous as Apple makes it out to be, we’d be out of business. We help facilitate millions of repairs every year. The way to make repair safe is to teach people how to do it safely. But what about “dangerous” unofficial parts? There will always be people out there trying to turn a profit off of shoddily made electronics—the demand for parts is eternal. But OEMs’ safety concerns regarding aftermarket parts are often unwarranted; many of those parts aren’t necessarily any lower in quality than genuine ones (which aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be anyways). Some are even made by the very same suppliers that your device’s manufacturer buys from, which makes the exorbitant prices that Apple charges for parts of the same quality even more untenable.
But aside from all that, ask yourself: if genuine branded parts were readily available and competitively priced, which part would you buy? Which part do you think most consumers would buy at first glance when scrolling through an online marketplace? With competitive pricing we bet they’d probably go with the one from the big name company whose branding they’re already familiar with, right? But when the prices get high, people naturally turn away from big name brands. Pricing their parts so exorbitantly creates the very problem that Apple is trying to fix with pairing. Lowering their prices would not be a total loss either, because it would open up a revenue stream by drawing in customers whose current option is to turn to aftermarket parts.
The Real Reason: Unpaired Parts Lose Manufacturers Money
After we’ve deflated those supposed technical explanations for why parts pairing has to exist, what’s left? Maybe what most of this issue really comes down to isn’t security or safety—it’s money. A whole litany of arguments of varying legitimacy can be made about the “necessity” of serialization but at the end of the day it remains a blunt tool for keeping money in the manufacturer’s pockets.
The financially-driven arguments for serialized parts-pairing come in a range. We’ve already touched on how making repair harder and more expensive leads to more new phone purchases. Additional arguments can be made that it discourages a market for genuine parts harvested out of stolen phones, as well as markets for counterfeit devices (which can be used in warranty fraud) and parts. But these issues are more of a problem for the OEMs’ bottom line than they are for the average consumer, and OEMs could alleviate them for all affected parties.
When OEMs inflate their repair prices and fearmonger about aftermarket and third party parts they exacerbate many of these problems for themselves. Making genuine parts affordable and providing data on aftermarket parts providers that are quality would help alleviate those concerns without screwing up everyone’s ability to fix their devices. And in the end companies with an environmental agenda like Apple’s have to ask themselves: is the money they save by pairing worth the e-waste it will inevitably create?
When Apple makes parts incompatible or serializes them, it makes it harder for you or independent shops to repair them. And the harder it is to get non-manufacturer repairs done the more likely it is that consumers will turn to the “official” repair locations and shell out whatever their asking price is. Or spend even more on a new device. By maintaining control over how you fix your device OEMs like Apple are doing their very best to funnel consumers towards their checkout aisle.
Monopolizing the Repair Market
Serialization is a particularly insidious method of discouraging repair. It’s the newer, higher-tech version of our old friends the pentalobes or super strong adhesives. Obscure screws, at least, had a fairly simple solution for those of us who make tools: look closely at the screw head and make a bit to match it. Parts-pairing similarly tries to lock you out of repair, but rather than relying on merely an obscure part, it relies on a unique part that only the manufacturer can dole out. Any other repair method for these parts requires complex (and often expensive) workarounds by individuals and independent repair shops.
Third-Party Repair in a Serialized World
If you want to replace a paired part on your device but can’t afford OEM-sanctioned repairs (or don’t have access to them, as is the case for many rural device owners) you’ll need some pretty intensive methods to get both full functionality and freedom from constant error messages. Those methods are: to microsolder the microcontroller from the original part to the replacement and/or reprogram a part of the microcontroller called an EEPROM with the help of a specialized tool. One or both of these methods may be required depending on the model of device and the part being repaired. Understandably, these repairs can be lengthy and expensive for both the customer and the repair shop.
Option 1: Microsoldering
Alexandre Isaac, who runs French microsoldering school The Repair Academy, knows firsthand how high the price of performing these fixes can get. “You have to pay for training because learning on your own is hard, you have to pay for tools, you need microscopes, you need soldering irons, that’s an extra 1,000 bucks. In the time you actually spend learning you’re going to burn up some phones.” Plus, after the upfront costs of supplies and training, “Then you’re actually gonna spend 30 minutes under a microscope swapping these tiny, tiny chips.” Said Isaac, “The technician you pay to do that operation? Not on the same pay rate as the guy who changes screens or batteries.”
Option 2: No Microsoldering
You can move parts around and get a certain degree of functionality, but according to Isaac, not moving the microcontrollers on certain phones comes with its own price: those pernicious error messages. “I work with a few big refurbishing companies. They sell maybe 10,000-20,000 phones a day… they get massive amounts of return rates. People return the whole phone just because of an error message.” Repair services have tried to find ways of reassuring customers that their phone is in working order and the error messages aren’t necessary, but explanations just don’t do the trick in the face of constant pop-ups proclaiming that something is wrong. Marie Castelli, public affairs manager at Backmarket, explained in a Repair.eu webinar: “Even when explained that these messages are mainly a warning message and do not affect the functionality, we see a share of customers returning the product.” If you’re a customer at a repair shop, it’s the kind of thing that can discourage you from going anywhere other than the Apple store again. Or it could inspire you to leave poor reviews that damage the repair shop’s reputation.
The real kicker, though, comes when you remember that Apple gets to sidestep all of this. The expense, the training, the hours of practice, the phones you burn through while getting the hang of microsoldering—all of it. Because they can just re-pair the device to its new component at will. And only they and their approved repair locations can do that. It’s a painfully unfair advantage against everyone else in the industry. “They just need a few clicks and they can do what we need thirty minutes to an hour to go through with super high-end tools and super experienced technicians [to do],” says Isaac. Sure doesn’t sound like a level playing field, does it?
Option 3: Play the Manufacturers’ Game
Apple has extended an olive branch to independent repairers. They’ve got systems in place to allow some non-Apple repair shops to buy genuine parts directly from them and place them in devices without the error messages and functionality issues. Now, any offering at all is a big step for Apple, but the proverbial olive branch here is disappointingly short. More of a twig, if we’re being honest.
Getting Apple’s approval requires jumping through a lot of hoops. Their Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program may have “independent” in the title, but it comes with a variety of stipulations that feel a lot like a leash. When Vice got a hold of the contract for one of these programs, they found some shocking requirements in there for the shops that may want to participate.
A few of those requirements include: handing over their customer’s personal information like addresses and phone numbers, limiting what repairs are allowed to be performed and what types of parts can be used, and consenting to surprise audits of your shop at any time for the duration of your participation in the program and five years thereafter. The olive branch has thorns.
IRPs go through all of that rigamarole to purchase a screen from Apple then priced at $270. Add to that the labor cost of installing the phone, operational costs, and an actual profit, and that’s a pricey repair. Meanwhile Apple Stores offer the part with repair for $280 total. The only winner here is Apple. These are the conditions that independent repair shops have to work with to get replacement parts paired without resorting to microsoldering. See why we want to stop this trend ASAP?
The self service repair option that Apple offers is a similarly frustrating affair. The repair selection is small, parts are expensive, especially with optional tool rental (not to mention an additional $1,200 fee if you don’t return what you rented in adequate condition). Getting verifiable replacement parts mailed to customers could be a huge boon to people living far from repair shops or even just hoping to save money by performing their own repairs. But repair should be accessible to everybody, not just folks that can take a chance on a $1,200 deposit.
Put Pairing in the Peoples’ Hands
So serialization makes repair more expensive, limits our options, and creates more e-waste. Manufacturers are concerned about safety, security, and profit. How do we square this circle?
Well, not to sound like a broken record, but the auto repair world has solved this problem already. Just let repairs happen. There’s no reason for us in tech to get it twisted.
Some people will always stick with the dealer and that’s fine. Some of us want to spend a weekend with the kids on the driveway doing an oil change. Others of us don’t have the time and need the corner mechanic to finish the job on our way to work. The important thing is that we have options. We have rights. Why do those rights end as soon as we set down the oil filter and pick up a cracked screen?
The only way to do software-locking serialization fairly is to give the people the necessary tools to live with that increasingly ubiquitous technology. If the tools to fix the pairing issue are too dangerous to put out there for everyone to use, then there is no responsible way to implement this serialization of parts. So our call to OEMs: Make pairing software available to all, or drop the practice entirely. No, we don’t mean just ceasing to practice parts-pairing in future models. We mean the ones that are out now. Evidence suggests that its doable. Multiple pairing-related functionality issues have appeared via software update, and in turn (after folks make enough of a stink about bricked phones and faces rendered un-ID-able) been fixed via software update.
If independent repair shops and the general public could access the OEMs’ proprietary software for parts-pairing a whole mess of problems we spent this post describing could be largely erased. OEMs would have far less leverage with which to hold smaller repair businesses hostage, and handy individuals could take repair into their own hands. A little healthy competition can go a long way to improve the entire repair landscape—creating more jobs and minimizing waste.
OEMs will likely respond to this suggestion with the old argument that it would be disastrous for security to open up their software to the public. But playing keep-away with the only tool that can give your customers proper autonomy over their device just isn’t acceptable. They made the problem, now they have to provide the solution. And that’s either mass un-pairing of parts, free access to the necessary pairing software (with common sense security measures in place) or, if pairing as a security issue is a hill they really want to die on, an alternative software workaround that still allows for repair. Alternatives have been posed. If those ideas are impossible then spell out why and the public will brainstorm and pose some more. We would love to see some more innovative solutions from teams that we know are capable of smarter design than this. Just look at the iPhone 14! Making all the changes they did on this device show off Apple’s skill and forethought when it comes to physical design. Now we’d just like to see some of that skill and forethought put to work on a smarter fix than these software locks. We would obviously rather it didn’t have any paired parts, but at the very least they don’t seem to have added more pairing, which is something.
Now, Apple, Samsung, and Google are massive companies; us little(ish) guys shouldn’t feel a need to do their work for them. But if we might put forth with some modest suggestions:
- Provide competitively priced repair parts as a new revenue stream.
- Have users agree to terms of service before using the part-pairing software.
- Create incentives for voluntarily registering products, parts, and repairs.
- Market repair readiness. It plays well with environmentalists and the security obsessed.
Unpair the Future
Eventually, manufacturers end their support of their hardware: Genius Bars don’t have parts for the Apple II. Good luck getting Nintendo to help you find a new screen for your original Game Boy. But those “obsolete” devices don’t just die en masse when support ends.
Often, with good care and maintenance, they keep kicking for years, even decades past the manufacturer’s support period. Sometimes they even manage to survive longer than the manufacturers that made them—looking at you Pebble rebels. When we hear from repair shops about Xboxes and PlayStations stacking up in their back rooms due to serialized parts that aren’t profitable to repair, we know that the chances of these consoles staying functional long enough to become beloved retro passion projects are slim. Parts pairing could largely end our ability to extend the lives of our devices.
Repair has always required determination, training, and experience. But microscopic parts, impenetrable software, and repair monopolies are shutting the best repair minds out of their jobs. Even the most determined, experienced repair folks can’t do anything about it without very specialized training and expensive tools.
All we’re asking for is a repair world that works like it should: When you’ve got two identical devices, broken in different ways, you should be able to harvest parts to get at least one working device. Without losing key functions of the device. Without disabling important device health indicators. Without fear-mongering notifications that crop up over and over again. Without throwing two salvageable devices away and buying two more to replace them.
Nipping parts pairing in the bud is crucial for keeping independent repair shops in business, for keeping devices working as long as possible, and for making sure we don’t add any more than we need to the ever-growing tide of electronic waste. To join the fight, check out Repair.org (US)—or find your region’s repair advocacy group here. The Right to Repair is coming. Fighting for it can get it here sooner.