Motherboard published a pretty bold article earlier this month highlighting the impact iPhone 8 would have on 3rd party repair shops.
The title? “Title: The Next iPhone Could Put 15,000 Repair Companies Out of Business”
That’s pretty bold!
Since then many other articles have come out spinning this concept and have many repair techs, repair shop owners and even consumers worried that they may longer not have a choice of where they want to have their device repaired.
Apple has been ever so evolving to gain more repair/warranty revenue and improve security so just how accurate are these claims?
In this article, I’ll take a quick moment to clear the air based on actual facts and speculate the impact surrounding the removal of Touch ID from the home button could have on the repair industry.
Spoiler – The impact will be real!
Skip to Article Section:
- Touch ID Background
- The Doom Claims
- The Facts – What We Know & Don’t Know
- Worst & Best Case Scenarios
- Likely Scenario
- Replacement Parts Impact
Touch ID Background
Since iPhone 5s, Apple has adopted Touch ID into the home button allowing users to “unlock” their device with their fingerprint instead of using a pattern or pass code.
In order to securely pass encrypted touch data the home button’s hardware ID is uniquely paired with the Secure Enclave chip inside the A7 CPU chip. If these don’t match, then Touch ID won’t work on the repaired device.
If you crack your screen and use a third-party repair company the technician will replace the screen assembly but would have to swap the home button from your original screen to the replacement screen in order to keep touch ID functionality.
However, even the most professional repair technicians can’t prevent the ribbon cable connecting the home button to the logic board from ripping during a repair job.
When this happens, an aftermarket home button must be used and prevents the device from being able to use touch ID functions.
It’s been a true double edged sword for all; User fixes their cracked screen but might lose the added security Touch ID provides.
In Layman’s from a security perspective, the device is like a house that has a door and one key. If the door needs to be replaced your local handyman can only install a new door without a lock system. Your original home builder would be the only one who can install a new door with a lock & key.
Official Apple repair channels circumvent this issue with an expensive proprietary contraption that pairs the home button with the secure enclave during the repair process.
Additionally, Apple temporarily caused a lot of controversy when a new iOS software release retroactively turned devices into bricks (Dubbed “Error-53) if a repair took place and the original home button wasn’t able to be used.
The Doom Claims
All claims point to Apple removing the physical home button all together and migrating the touch ID function directly into their new OLED panels.
Light sensing IR diodes would be embedded next to the actual IR light source pixels allowing touch ID fingerprints to be input directly from the OLED screen.
This technology is much more sensitive than simple touch functionality and is capable of detecting the micro sensitivities required to precisely read the ridges of one’s fingerprints accurately.
No more need for the unique ID home button sensor found on previous models.
If the concept of requiring the touch ID hardware to “match” a specific device is continued, this would result in non-pairing of parts in every screen replacement job.
There would be no individual part (the home button) that third-party repair can single handily migrate over to create a pairing set of hardware except the OEM screen that’s damaged and needing to be swapped out in the first place.
- The Next iPhone Could Put 15,000 Repair Companies Out of Business
- Next iPhone could shut thousands of companies
- Apple moves to grab monopoly on screen repairs
In order for all this to happen, a series of events must all take place.
Some are confirmed, some aren’t and some are too vague right now.
- OLED Displays (Confirmed) – This new technology can only be adopted with OLEDs and leads the prerequisite list. OLED Displays will be used on future iPhones starting with the iPhone 8+.
- Button-less Home Key (Confirmed) – Removal of a physical home button means Apple has to adopt new technology in a new location for Touch ID.
- Paired Key to OLED Panel – (Unconfirmed/Probable) – It’s not confirmed if the OLED panel will carry a paired key to the Secure Enclave, yet. However, it’s hard to see Apple ditching this concept unless some other form of authentication comes into play.
- Functionality with Non-Paired Key – (Unknown) – If #3 above happens, will Apple still allow non-paired hardware (OLED panel) to work without Touch ID functions?
Focusing on security, I just don’t see Apple revamping the entire OLED panel and accepting users inability to have the added layer of security on a sizable amount of third-party repairs. They’ve had several years with 5s/6/6s/7 to plan accordingly and my crystal ball says their likely to fill this gap with some other change on future models.
Apple has filed patents and recently acquired highly related companies such as LuxView (micro-LCD tech) and Legbacore (security) which would speed up the process and cement their desires of creating secure OLED greatness.
- Apple redesigns fingerprint ID solution for OLED iPhone, say sources
- Apple Takes Last-Minute Change of Course for In-Display Touch ID: Report
Worst & Best Case Scenarios
Patents and acquisitions are never a guarantee way of predicting Apple’s future technology advances but many of the confirmed facts can give us an indicator of what to expect.
In a worst case scenario, Apple will assign the OEM OLED panel a hardware ID located in the IC chip of the screen assembly and require a paired key between screen hardware and the secure enclave, just as it’s been in the past.
On top of this, Apple would not allow a device to fully boot with a missing or mismatch of parts, rendering a screen repair impossible using a refurbished, copy or even new replacement part unless the repair is done at an Apple Authorized Service Provider.
A 2nd worst case scenario would allow non-paired hardware to work but prevent Touch ID from working on 100% of all third-party repairs.
Furthermore, Apple would deploy one of the above scenarios to not just the i8+ but all variants that will be released in August 2017.
In a best case scenario, Apple would allow screen assemblies other than the OEM to be used and function with touch ID.
To do this, Apple would have to eliminate hardware pairing and would mean some new form of software verification we haven’t heard about would need to be introduced.
After all, they have recently shifted their warranty policy regarding third party repair but conflicts with their ongoing efforts to lobby against Right to Repair.
All options provide uncertainty that challenge everyone in the screen replacement business.
I think Apple’s real intention is to do away with hardware matching ID parts in the near future. Why?
Software can accomplish everything they’ve done so far to secure devices with hardware paired keys.
Secondly, Apple’s continued quest to encourage users to repair through official channels would challenge their ability to easily scale their current repair business model.
They’ve recently started to allow non-official AASP’s to repair and each location would need an expensive ($20K-$60K) calibration machine to pair new parts to users devices. Sure, Apple can afford it but it’s not the best option considering the cost and logistics when other software developments could overcome the need for such a contraption.
It’s likely these devices would also need to be frequently upgraded or replaced as entirely different breeds of OLED screens are introduced into new devices.
Lastly, we’ll most likely see something new from Apple in terms of security that mixes hardware and software technology. Look back at Apple’s battle with the FBI, security docs leaked by WikiLeaks and the need to patch Touch ID in recent iOS firmware updates.
Apple’s exposure puts a big target on their back and will force them to keep innovating security measures to keep hackers one step behind.
On a positive note, we’re more likely to only see OLED on the i8+ model where traditional LCD screens would continue to be used on the two other models to be released. This would greatly reduce the overnight impact compared to OLED being used across the board as “+” models are purchased in fewer numbers.
At a minimum, new security tech will be fabricated on the i8+ and force third-party repair & parts channels to improvise and innovate their own “work-arounds”.
Replacement Parts Impact
The largest impact will come from a side-effect that doesn’t matter which way Apple navigates through the unknown facts.
Regardless of a repair businesses decision to use, copy screens have always had the largest impact on driving down cost for all variants of OEM, refurbished and aftermarket replacement parts. We did a case study in a previous post.
Shortages in OLED-making machines have been a real concern for Apple. Even securing a contract with rival Samsung to manufacture their OLED’s would eat up all the available screens on the market.
Aftermarket manufactures simply won’t have the ability to procure the necessary machines, raw components and technical expertise that’s already scarce.
Additionally, the new touch ID diode OLED is so micro-complex that manufactures attempting to make aftermarket parts would have a very difficult, if not impossible task of trying to replicate this proprietary technology in a timely manner.
Even if they can “crack the code” the cost of R&D and small scale manufacturing would provide no cost advantage for producing an aftermarket part.
Just look back at this history of Samsung Galaxy screen replacements for a close comparison of what can be expected. Lack of copies have always created supply shortages and more expensive costs.
OLEDs are already more expensive components to begin with.
Throw in potential compatibility issues, IC driver programming and the possibility that parts may need to be uniquely paired and it’s easy to see why manufactures will continue to avoid producing aftermarket OLED parts.
Lack of copies will result in real supply shortages that keep costs very high for much longer periods of time.
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