For 10 years, John Bumstead has had a small-but-profitable business buying old Apple laptops in bulk, refurbishing them by hand, and selling them to wholesalers or via Amazon.com for about $150.
They are good, working machines saved from obsolescence to bring the Apple experience to buyers who can't afford the company's super-premium prices. "I give these computers a second life," Bumstead said from his home in Minneapolis.
But come Jan. 4, a big chunk of his marketplace will disappear. That's when Amazon will close access to its website for unauthorized Apple resellers. They have limited options: Either try to obtain reseller authorization from Apple (not an easy process), or meet Amazon's specifications for sellers of refurbished merchandise, which include proof that they have sold $2.5 million in Apple goods to major retailers or wireless carriers over 90 days.
"The people who've been selling MacBooks or other Apple products are pretty much going to be cut off from the Amazon marketplace," Bumstead said.
The new restrictions coincided with a deal announced Nov. 9 by Amazon and Apple making new iPads, iPhones and Apple Watches available on Amazon for the first time (the online merchant previously sold Apple computers only). Accordingly, the reseller community views the rules as an offshoot of Apple's well-known hostility to third-party repairs of its products. And that places the move squarely in the cross hairs of the burgeoning "right of repair" movement.
The right of repair may not rank up there with the "unalienable rights" to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. But for modern consumers, it's meaningful on multiple levels — for the concept of ownership and for privacy, personal economics and environmental sustainability.
"Fundamentally, it's about who owns our devices and who controls what we can do with them," said Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, which distributes free repair guides for thousands of consumer products and sells replacement parts and tools. Wiens also is a director of the Repair Association, which promotes legislation aimed at protecting the right to repair. "In the old world, the answer clearly was you."
No longer. As consumer products have become more complex, manufacturers have found new ways to interfere with repairs by anyone but authorized servicers, often for high fees. Refrigerators and other household appliances now come with electronic components or passwords that can be reset only with equipment or a code held by the manufacturer, or kill switches that make the product inoperable if a module is replaced with a nonmanufacturer's version or if it's merely opened by an unauthorized repairer.
Farmers in the Midwest have been in a battle with John Deere & Co. over its refusal to provide full access to software code embedded in its tractors, forcing farmers to ship malfunctioning machinery to distant authorized shops. Manufacturers have asserted that some repairs amount to copyright infringement because they bypass or alter copyrighted software code. Electronics makers erect multiple obstacles to hands-on repairs, including glued-in batteries, circuit boards or memory cards.
Apple has been accused of taking an especially aggressive stance against third-party repairs or refurbishment, using both hardware and software. Its laptops are held together with proprietary screws needing special tools to remove. For years, the devices' memory and storage drives have been glued into their insides, so buyers have had to specify those components at the moment of sale (usually for higher prices than equivalent units in the open market).
In 2016, an upgrade to the iPhone operating system turned the devices into mute paperweights if they detected that non-Apple hardware had been installed. (Apple later released a fix for that notorious "Error 53" bug, claiming that it had gone public by mistake.)
Just this month, Apple acknowledged that its newest laptops carry a chip that will shut down the units if replacement hardware has been installed, unless the hardware has been configured with a software tool distributed only to Apple Stores and company-certified technicians. The company said this limitation is designed to safeguard the security protections built into the chip.
Manufacturers have multiple reasons for limiting repair options. One is to profit from shorter obsolescence cycles by making it almost as cheap to replace an older product as to have it repaired. Another is to extract revenue from captive repair services; authorized repairers typically have to pay a fee for their certification, and are generally bound to buy their parts from the manufacturers.
By that light, refurbished used devices just amount to competition. When Bumstead buys superannuated MacBooks from recyclers, hundreds at a time, he generally deems about 70 percent repairable and cannibalizes the other 30 percent for parts. Apple doesn't earn a cent from the process, and loses at least a few sales to customers who might otherwise manage to scrape together the price of something new.
In an e-mail, Apple defended its control over repairs by saying that "authorized providers can ensure the quality, safety, and security of repairs for customers." The company also said that when its products reach the end of their useful life, "Apple takes responsibility for recycling them safely and responsibly." But this raises the question of who decides when a product's useful life is over.
In the old days, the TV repairman was a popular member of American society. Today's throwaway culture has made such figures into historical relics, at consumers' expense and the price of filling landfills with mountains of electronic trash.