[Tinkerphones] Strategies for sustainable phones
paul at boddie.org.uk
Thu Sep 19 18:18:33 CEST 2019
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
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"
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
"To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution"
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
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.
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