[Tinkerphones] Strategies for sustainable phones

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Thu Sep 19 18:18:33 CEST 2019


Hello again,

Recently, having found myself needing to buy a fairly cheap Android smartphone 
to keep communicating with the rest of the world, I found myself reviewing 
what the options really were for buying something that would be (amongst other 
things)...

1. Viable for a reasonable amount of time: the featurephone I retired lasted
   15 years but was wearing out and obviously couldn't do smartphone things.

2. Designed not to become obsolete purely because of cynical corporate
   decisions: for example, having a removable battery instead of something
   sealed in that may either spontaneously decide that it wants to burst out
   of the phone or that will eventually fail to hold a decent amount of
   charge, making the whole device useless.

3. Running Free Software under my control as an end-user.

Obviously, the phone I ended up getting doesn't fully satisfy (3) even though 
the manufacturer does provide something claiming to be the source code. It 
does satisfy (2), being something of a rarity now. Time will tell how 
successful it will satisfy (1).

Being aware of various initiatives, it was therefore interesting to read the 
following review of Fairphone 3:

"Fairphone 3 review: the most ethical and repairable phone you can buy"
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/18/fairphone-3-review-ethical-phone

I dislike the tone of technology reviews, especially when they talk of "last 
year's" technology. They start to sound like fashion industry gossip ("last 
season's collection") with largely the same implied level of regard for the 
planet, workers' rights, and so on, unless carefully worded and qualified.

Fairphone have clearly refined their process of getting products to market 
that satisfy their ethical goals, and they appear to be improving with regard 
to software support, but even with their resources it appears difficult to 
convince others that their premium (£200 according to the article) is worth 
paying or that their longevity goals can be realised. Will the phone still be 
usable in five years?

Coincidentally, another article approaches this latter problem from a 
different angle:

"To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution"
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/17/tech-climate-change-luddites-data

Although it is perhaps not a central observation of the article, one reason 
why something like the Fairphone might not be usable in five years is down to 
the ongoing escalation of end-user hardware requirements by software and 
services. This is rather like the way Microsoft and Intel worked in concert to 
make people upgrade their computers every few years, but now things like 
"bloat" in Web and online services are factors, too.

Making a top-end device can mitigate obsolescence to an extent, but this 
raises some worthwhile questions about where less well-resourced efforts for 
making genuinely open phones might be best directed. Smaller initiatives 
cannot hope to be using the latest chipsets because these are all exclusive 
things for the largest companies. And sadly, "consumers" are programmed to 
obsess about specifications and how new the technology is.

I wonder, and think that others have also wondered before, whether it isn't 
worth concentrating on making more modest devices instead of supposedly 
competitive smartphones where openness is the differentiator. I recall 
discussions of the Fernvale kit, the Zerophone, and maybe Nikolaus considered 
a featurephone design at one point.

One aspect that will always detract from considerations of featurephones is 
that their capabilities are maybe limited and do not appeal to all kinds of 
users. That some Web sites or services may be too demanding, for instance, and 
that the hardware just cannot deal with modern things.

It certainly seems to be the case that there are systemic issues involved 
here: the people writing software and deploying platforms need to stop and 
consider their effect on the end-user, on device longevity, and on the planet. 
But there must still be a core region of functionality that could 
satisfactorily be addressed by a featurephone design (or something relegated 
to that category by whatever it is that passes for a "proper" smartphone these 
days).

Anyway, I think I have now written enough on this topic, but I hope that it is 
worthwhile to air these thoughts in the hope that they help to inform any 
future directions of the efforts undertaken in this community.

Paul


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