A few years ago, all it took to break my iPhone 4 was a casual spin in my office chair. Just like that and it was on the ground, where it lay with a cracked screen.
Not just kind of cracked, but very cracked. Hardly usable.
So I booked an Apple Store appointment for the coming weekend. It was the first phone I'd broken, and I felt pretty stupid about it. When I got to the Apple Store for the appointment, I was straight up about what happened.
It was on my desk.
I turned in a chair, which knocked the phone to the ground.
The phone screen cracked tremendously. I'm a dummy. Story over.
The Apple Store representative listened intently. He then asked if I'd backed up the phone before coming to the store. I had. He asked that I wait for a few moments, and he disappeared into the back of the store. When he returned, he had a brand new iPhone 4 for me, free of charge. "Here you go." He took my broken phone and that was that. What?!
That was my "mulligan."
You may have experienced this phenomenon yourself, albeit likely not lately. The "mulligan" policy was Apple's way of "surprising and delighting" customers. You broke your fancy new phone? Here's your one freebie get out of jail free card, care of Apple. The next time it'll cost ya.
Speaking with multiple Apple retail employees who've been with the company for several years, Tech Insider confirmed this policy: Apple used to give the vast majority of iPhone buyers one free fix or replacement. Not so much anymore, though. "It's been stricter to not give away for free since the iPhone 5. Since they implemented AppleCare+ actually," one employee told us.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
AppleCare+ is Apple's paid insurance program: pay $100 and get a deal on a couple "accidents." Like, say, turning too quickly in a swivel chair and knocking your phone off a desk? Rather than paying the cost of a new iPhone or a screen replacement, you pay between $80 and $100 for Apple to solve the issue (that's another $80 or $100 after you've paid the initial $100 for AppleCare+). It's easy to read greed into this scenario, where Apple stopped offering free phone replacements due to a paid insurance program. But it's not quite so simple.
"People pay for a reduced price on damage, so giving stuff for free became more unfair for people who pay for added insurance," the same employee said.
And that's right. Charging for a repair and replacement service while also arbitrarily giving out free repairs and replacements is a risky business, one that leaves no one happy.
But here's the rub: Some Apple Store employees, and not necessarily just management, are able to override repair and replacement costs. Though Apple Store employees are no longer given the blank check they previously had to "surprise and delight" iPhone customers, they still have the ability to override costs for any number of reasons without requiring management approval.
So if you broke your iPhone in the past few years and Apple repaired or replaced it for free, congratulations! You're the exception. And to think, just a few short years ago that was the standard for first-timers.
It's likely the policy is going to evolve again very soon. Apple just introduced a new payment plan for the iPhone that both undercuts phone service providers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) and comes with AppleCare+ included. Expect Apple to get further and further away from offering a free fix or replacement as AppleCare+ becomes more widely adopted among the massive iPhone user base. When both grandpa and little Suzie have AppleCare+ built into how they buy their phones, maybe they'll be delighted and surprised when a repair or replacement costs under $100.
That is a pretty low price to fix a futuristic pocket computer, no?
Apple's official policy on iPhone breaks is spelled out clearly in a single sentence on the AppleCare+ product page: "Every iPhone comes with one year of hardware repair coverage through its limited warranty and up to 90 days of complimentary support." That doesn't cover accidental breaks (like mine), only defects and any other issues that aren't caused by, say, a rogue swivel chair. We asked Apple for an official statement on the previous "mulligan" policy, but haven't heard back as of publishing.