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Even experienced technicians find Apple's Self-Repair program hard to navigate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When your iPhone breaks - and I break mine a lot - you usually only have a couple options - take it to Apple to fix or buy a new one. Apple has been under pressure, though, to offer a third option - to let people fix their phones themselves. This spring, the tech giant caved and launched its Self-Service Repair program. But as NPR's Ziad Buchh reports, it's not exactly the answer people had hoped for.

ZIAD BUCHH, BYLINE: Jessa Jones did what millions of iPhone users do every year - she dropped her phone. When she took her phone to the Apple store to get her screen fixed, she was told she would have to upgrade her phone for $600. Jones repairs phones for a living, but didn't have access to Apple's own parts and tools. So when the company announced their Self-Service Repair program, she was excited to try it out. But the process wasn't easy.

JESSA JONES: Ugh. All right.

BUCHH: Jones struggled as she lifted Apple's tools onto her workbench, and there were a lot of tools - specialized screwdrivers, suction cups, adhesive cutters. And then there was the bulky machinery, like a display heater, a screen press and a battery roller. Combined, the two boxes contained almost 80 pounds' worth of tools.

JONES: I really feel like I should have hit my watch to see how many calories I burned doing that 'cause it definitely feels about the same as doing a set of squats. Whoo (ph). All right.

BUCHH: Apple's self-repair program sounds straightforward in theory - Apple provides you with the tools and the instructions. Just follow them. But even Jones, an experienced phone technician, found it difficult to understand their almost 100-page manual. And then there was a price - renting Apple's equipment and doing the repair herself actually cost her more than having Apple fix her phone. Jones came away from the program with a less-than-glowing conclusion.

JONES: The only purpose of it seems to be to check the box, yes, we offer a repair program, but they don't intend for anyone to actually use this.

BUCHH: Self-repair is one of the cornerstones of the right-to-repair movement. The idea is simple. If I own a product, I should be able to repair it. Apple has been one of the movement's staunchest opponents, but the tech giant faced increasing pressure in the last year. Last July, President Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on companies that restrict repair. More than 25 states have introduced right-to-repair bills. Nathan Proctor leads the right-to-repair campaign for U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit advocacy group. Proctor says Apple's current repair system pushes consumers to buy new phones over small, fixable issues.

NATHAN PROCTOR: If you've had an experience taking something to an Apple authorized provider, there's a really good chance you've been told that they have - there's no way to fix it, and you have to upgrade.

BUCHH: Apple says it's going to expand its self-repair program later this year. But still, they maintain that their authorized providers are the safest and most reliable repair option. Analyst Gene Munster agrees.

GENE MUNSTER: They have a view that they want to keep things simple for people and really take the friction out of using tech.

BUCHH: He says a self-repair process is too complicated for most consumers. Right-to-repair activist Nathan Proctor doesn't necessarily disagree.

PROCTOR: Right to repair is really about giving options to consumers, right? So not everybody will feel comfortable fixing their phones themselves, but we deserve the option.

BUCHH: For Jessa Jones, it's also a lot bigger than that. She has twin 11-year-old daughters. She says they grew up helping her open up electronics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: Good job, girls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We did it. We did it.

BUCHH: Earlier this year, they won eighth place in an international engineering competition.

JONES: Because how else are they going to be able to be our next generation of innovators if they never look under the hood?

BUCHH: Ziad Buchh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ziad Buchh