[Tinkerphones] Strategies for sustainable phones

H. Nikolaus Schaller hns at goldelico.com
Sat Sep 21 15:48:50 CEST 2019

Hi Paul,

> Am 19.09.2019 um 18:18 schrieb Paul Boddie <paul at boddie.org.uk>:
> 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.

Durability has become weaker.

But the main problem I see (at least here in Germany) is that you can't live
without a smartphone with Android or iOS any more, after banks are now requiring
that you have a recent smartphone to run their new online banking apps.

Some banks even go so far by contract clauses that you are not allowed to root
the device, have recent one from a renowned brand and have to run the
latest virus scanners...

And all they say is that it is for our security. Well, it is for their security...

> 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.

Well, I rarely had battery problems. If the charging circuit is well designed
batteries can live for quite a long time. For example I have a MacBook Pro with
non-replaceable battery which is model 2013 (i.e. 6 years old), has 780 charging
cycles, good quality and reports a fully charged capacity of 91% of what it had
when I bought. So there is still no need for replacement. Maybe in 6 more years?

> 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.

Well, they usually provide source code of something... But sometimes not the exact model
you have and you have to find out yourself what these bits are...

> 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.

Well, if there is no technological breakthrough progress any more (displays,
cameras, processors, RAM sizes etc. do not show significant improvement any
more), the only way vendors can tell they have something new and get customers
to replace devices is by changing the clothing every year - this is called "fashion".
And making them less durable. Seems to be a fundamental law of economics...

> 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.

It has become even worse than some years ago. Connections between chip producers
and EMS companies have been established now and there is no room for any
smaller initiative. Unless it buys what the EMS has already designed.

> And sadly, "consumers" are programmed to 
> obsess about specifications and how new the technology is.

And how cheap.

> 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.

Yes, we thought about it - but where are the real users?

There is for example hyped LightPhone2 but I don't see that it is a useful device.
Minimizing functions can also go too far.

The key benefit of a smartphone is its flexibility for everyone. For the user
and for the vendor and for app developers. Nobody is basically limited. And
it optimizeds the quantities produced for the vendor. It is a win-win-win for
everyone and leaving this in either direction must have another win for either
of the groups.

> 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.

Exactly. Users loose this by moving to a feature phone and therefore it is
rarely interesting.

> 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.

Well, in general with Android smartphone prices starting at ca. 60€ they
have become a commodity. Which means it is so common that alternatives
are interesting to discuss in theory but in practise there isn't much reward.
And as mentioned above it goes the fashion article path.

BTW: feature phones already were there approx. 2003. There was less and
less technical differentiation so that Nokia Vertu or Siemens Xelibri
tried the fashion path. With the arrival of the iPhone there was a big change.

The most promising current open phone initiative seems to be the PinePhone.
Seems to be much cheaper than the Librem 5 at comparable functions...
And seems to use existing Plasma Mobile instead of developing the n-1st

I am currently considering to buy a PinePhone as soon as it becomes available
and start porting our LetuxOS to it. Maybe we can then quite easily have
QtMoko or Replicant or QuantumSTEP as alternative OS variants. Well,
none of them (maybe except Replicant) will be suitable for online-banking.
So that users still need a second device just for that purpose...


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