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Apple apologises for Error 53 iPhone malfunction, releases update to fix bricked phones

Apple has apologised to iPhone owners whose devices were disabled after succumbing to the Error 53 malfunction.

The company has also issued a software update that will reverse what until now has been described as an irreversible condition, one which blocked users from retrieving any data from their phones. Apple will reimburse anybody who was asked to pay for a whole new phone.

Error 53 making iPhones unusable

Pressure is mounting on Apple after a growing number of people report their devices have been bricked after first getting them repaired and then upgrading the software.

"We're thrilled, this is exactly what we were looking for," said Kyle Wiens, a leading repair advocate and co-founder of the iFixit website. "The fact that they apologised is [also] exciting."

Apple had initially insisted that the error was a result of a security feature that was designed to prevent fraudulent use of the fingerprint sensors in newer model iPhones.

iFixit's co-founder and repair advocate, Kyle Wiens.
iFixit's co-founder and repair advocate, Kyle Wiens. Photo: iFixit

"We take customer security very seriously and Error 53 is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers," said a statement issued by the company two weeks ago.

Wiens had earlier voiced concerns that this dismissal of the problem could be interpreted as an attempt to cut third-party repairers out of the burgeoning iPhone repair market, since the error almost exclusively affected people who had had unofficial repair work done.

"I'm not ready to ascribe malicious intent to the problem, but their handling of it is certainly callous," Wiens told Fairfax Media earlier this month. "They care more about their principles than their customers."

But Apple's new statement of contrition backs away from the idea that Error 53 was an intentional security measure, explaining that the feature was "designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers".

Error 53 epicentre: A magnified view of the home button and home button cable on an iPhone 6.
Error 53 epicentre: A magnified view of the home button and home button cable on an iPhone 6. Photo: iFixit

"It kind of feels that they pulled the reason out of a hat, but who knows?" Wiens told Fairfax Media. "It's definitely a plausible reason".

The backflip came after growing calls for a class action lawsuit in the United States. In Australia, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) announced it was investigating Apple to determine if the measure contravened consumer protection and competition laws. 

Danger, danger: The Error 53 alert.
Danger, danger: The Error 53 alert. 

"This is the second good thing Apple has done in two days," Wiens said today, referring to Apple's decision to refuse an FBI request to break into an iPhone recovered from one of the San Bernardino shooters.

How Error 53 worked

The condition, while rare, affected owners of the iPhone models 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus.

The Error 53 malfunction occurred when an iPhone or iPad with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor sustained damage to that apparatus or had repairs affecting it.

Those sensors have been cryptographically secured by Apple during the original process of manufacture, and cannot be reset by third-party repairers.

When the user tried to upgrade the iPhone or iPad to an updated version of the operating system, a dialogue box would appear on the screen saying: "The iPhone could not be restored. An unknown error occurred (53)."

At that point, the device will shut down and cease to operate.

Apple issued this statement to the tech website Techcrunch overnight

"Some customers' devices are showing 'Connect to iTunes' after attempting an iOS update or a restore from iTunes on a Mac or PC. This reports as an Error 53 in iTunes and appears when a device fails a security test. This test was designed to check whether Touch ID works properly before the device leaves the factory.

"Today, Apple released a software update that allows customers who have encountered this error message to successfully restore their device using iTunes on a Mac or PC.

"We apologise for any inconvenience, this was designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers.

"Customers who paid for an out-of-warranty replacement of their device based on this issue should contact AppleCare about a reimbursement."

Here are the instructions to bring your bricked iPhone back to life:

1. If iTunes is open on your Mac or PC, quit iTunes.

2. If your iOS device is plugged into your computer, unplug it.

3. Make sure that you have the latest version of iTunes.

4. Connect your iOS device to your computer with a USB cable. 

5. Open iTunes and select your device.

6. When you see the option in iTunes to Restore or Update, click Restore.*

7. When you see your iOS device's Hello screen, follow the onscreen steps to set up your device.

*If you previously backed up your device, you can set up from your backup.

*When you see the screen for Touch ID, tap Set up Touch ID later. 

8. If Touch ID on your device didn't work before you saw error 53, the feature still won't work after you restore your device. Contact Apple Support to ask about service options for Touch ID.

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