current events

The Trust Buster: How Apple Takes Advantage of its Consumers

February 20, 2019 | Aashik Bhalodia

Edited by: Yeji Kim

Apple has grown tremendously over the past decade since the release of the first iPhone, achieving the biggest market capitalization of any publicly traded company. The user-friendly and seamless ecosystem of its sleek and flashy product lineup has appeals to customers who now rarely look for alternatives and in turn overlook many of their unethical business practices. In other words, Apple’s massive devout user base allows the company to continually design products that are not utilitarian and often have major design flaws that cause devices to break or underperform compared to those of its competitors. Although Apple’s hefty price tags demand commensurate insurance policies and repair practices for faulty or broken devices, the exact opposite is true. Repair prices often reach the prices of the products themselves. To make matters worse, Apple also restricts repair shops and individuals by limiting the distribution of aftermarket parts and repair manuals and producing proprietary parts like screws and connectors. The implication of this business practice reveals a critical ethical and economic question. Should Apple offer more affordable repair services and allow customers and third-party repair businesses the right to repair devices?

Apple’s history of so-called ‘gates,’ including ‘bendgate’ and ‘batterygate,’ gives insight into a few of the scandals that have surrounded poorly designed devices and deceptive business tactics. Batterygate has notably caused controversy and resulted in two class action lawsuits. Batterygate exposed one of Apple’s many misleading practices of pushing software updates that throttled the performance of devices with older batteries in order to manage the capabilities of insufficient hardware.[1] The lawsuit asserts that “normal lithium-ion battery wear does not reduce device performance [and] a weakening battery has no effect on device performance unless there is software that links the two,” even though this “is precisely the conduct that Apple engaged in.”[2] Many viewed this as a tactic to make customers purchase the newest device instead of a feature to expand the life expectancy of their devices, especially because “Apple purposefully failed to disclose that the update would throttle phone performance for phone’s with weakened batteries.”[3] Although this assumption was initially entirely theoretical, Apple did indeed settle by responding to the lawsuit with actions that seemed to grovel to disgruntled customers, including a temporary decrease in the cost of a battery replacement.[4] The statement also insisted the company would never intentionally reduce the lifespan of a device.[5] Apple’s response, however, marks a negligible step towards the goal of restoring consumer rights within the technology sector.

Similarly, Apple attempted to conceal the issue of keycaps getting stuck with dust particles by updating the newest 2018 Macbook Pro with a new keyboard technology marketed as “sound dampener.” The class action lawsuit against the original 2017 keyboard design is based on five violations similar to those of the lawsuit against the battery complications; violations of the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act and the California Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, specifically, address Apple’s inadequate warranty policies and knowing production poorly designed products.[6] The lawsuit insists that even though Apple laptops are sold with a one-year warranty, “Apple does not fulfill its warranty obligations, instead directing many customers to self-help solutions…When Apple does provide warranty service, the keyboard replacement does not ensure a permanent fix. For consumers outside of the warranty period, Apple denies warranty service, instead directing them to pay…a cost of between $400 and $700.11.”[7] It further argues that “Apple also concealed and continues to conceal the problems through its marketing, advertising, and packaging of the Laptops,” showing that Apple potentially takes advantage of customers by forcing them to purchase new machines by charging outrageous repair fees.[8] According to an investigation by iFixit and comments made by Apple to the Verge, Apple states the new generation technology was not for solving these dust issues, thereby removing culpability from their class action suit.[9]

These practices are worrisome because Apple, as do its competitors, undoubtedly develops reputable software ecosystems and manages the App Store which attract so many consumers, but their hardware often times does not meet the technological demands and overall value of its software. They feed off of customer ignorance and intentionally profit off of every consumer’s inability to repair their own device at an affordable rate or without violating the warranty, which itself is rarely beneficial or affordable in practice. Comparatively, repairs like display replacements, battery replacements, and keyboard cleaning are relatively simple and inexpensive, but Apple dramatically overcharges and unfairly limits part-availability to reap revenue from the lucrative repair market.  

Unfortunately, the process of resolving any kind of device failure is still very arduous as current statutes in most states do not give customers the right to repair their own devices. The Repair Association (TRA) advocates for these rights in all industries, basing their legal argument for the right to repair consumer technology devices on the Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act of 2011-12, which grants motor vehicle owners the right to select their own service providers or repair their vehicles independently as well as mandate the accessibility of required repair manuals, tools, and parts.[10] Ironically, this Act includes a clause about the technology on board motor vehicles and the right to repair it. It states, “Computers of various kinds are now used by manufacturers in motor vehicle equipment and motor vehicle systems. On-board computer technology controls virtually all of the vehicle’s systems, and only service technicians with the necessary tools and information can access the computers to perform diagnosis, service, maintenance, and repair of the vehicle.”[11] Although this Act was not enacted federally and only passed in Massachusetts, a group of automobile organizations and coalitions agreed to adopt it as the foundation for a nationwide policy for the right to repair, even though it is not legally binding.[12] The right to repair movement for consumer technology has a clear, relevant precedence in a similarly competitive market.

It is imperative that customers be able to repair their own devices as companies like Apple and other technology conglomerates can continue to take advantage of unknowing customers by straddling the balance of producing ‘quality’ products while dodging repair requests and regulating repair materials and manuals. Many consider Apple’s software environment to be unparalleled, and their attention to design draws in so many customers. In addition to the support of the law, many fail to consider alternatives to Apple devices, allowing Apple to enforce these policies without implementing policies that assist customers. This practice should not be legal and deserves to be struck down in order to truly make the competitive consumer technology markets fairer to all businesses and, most importantly, restore consumer rights to repair already purchased products.

Aashik Bhalodia is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Applied Math & Statistics.


Citations

[1] Jen Kirby, “Apple admitted it’s slowing down certain iPhones,” Vox, last modified December 28, 2017, https://www.vox.com/2017/12/22/16807056/apple-slow-iphone-batteries.

[2] Grillo et al. vs. Apple, Inc. N.D. Cal. 2018

[3] Ibid.

[4] Apple, last modified December 28, 2017, https://www.apple.com/iphone-battery-and-performance/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Turner et al v. Apple, Inc. N.D. Cal. 2018 (5:18-cv-03048) https://www.scribd.com/document/379963185/Second-Class-Action-Against-Apple-for-Faulty-MacBook-Pro-Using-Butterfly-Key-Mechanism#fullscreen&from_embed

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sam Lionheart, “The Great Apple Keyboard Cover-Up,” iFixit, last modified July 13, 2018, https://ifixit.org/blog/10279/apple-macbook-keyboard-cover-up/.

[10] Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act of 2011, H.R. 1449, 112th Cong.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kyle Wiens, “You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Repair Your Car,” The Atlantic, last modified February 13, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/you-gotta-fight-for-your-right-to-repair-your-car/283791/

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