[Tinkerphones] Strategies for sustainable phones

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Mon Sep 23 16:28:46 CEST 2019

On Saturday 21. September 2019 15.48.50 H. Nikolaus Schaller wrote:
> > Am 19.09.2019 um 18:18 schrieb Paul Boddie <paul at boddie.org.uk>:
> > 
> > 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...

But very bad for the planet. As it is, however, people can always be persuaded 
to upgrade by just making the software more demanding, so as I noted, we have 
the same kind of upgrade culture as the one Microsoft and Intel cultivated.

I have tried to get in touch with a researcher I very vaguely know who has 
done work on sustainable phones, inquiring about considerations of software 
longevity which were generally absent in the research being done, but I 
haven't had any response yet. It seems to be a blind spot: people care about 
how the physical product is made, claiming a long lifespan, but then the 
software makes the device obsolete.


> > 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 stupid Web site for the LightPhone needs all my computer's CPU and half of 
its RAM. I guess nobody will be viewing it on a LightPhone2. But I guess this 
illustrates my point about ever-expanding hardware requirements for mundane 

As for that device itself, it takes the interesting but troublesome idea of 
using e-ink or e-paper displays for something that people might expect to 
support animated or rapidly updated content. Apart from the use-cases of 
reading e-books or showing one's boarding pass barcode at the airport security 
gates, people struggle to consider things that are compelling enough for 
people to want one (other than the fashion aspect of having something 

> 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.

Maybe use of the term "featurephone" isn't appropriate, then. If we rewind 
back to the good old days...


> 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.

...when people were using phones like the one I have recently abandoned, there 
was a certain level of focus on a core set of practical but specific functions 
that were gradually expanding. Starting out from handling only a small number 
of essential things - calling, contacts, timekeeping, simple messaging - 
various PDA-related and other more general computing functions were added. My 
phone had e-mail and calendar support, for instance, although I never got to 
use them to any decent extent.

Of course, music and video playback and Web browsing were introduced as soon 
as the hardware and network bandwidth were good enough. When "proper" Web 
browsing became available, the boundaries between phones and personal 
computers started to be rubbed out. And it should be said that there was 
always a demand for more capable phones and the ability to run other software 
on them.

I wouldn't advocate dropping functions that were what many people wanted in 
the first place, but there is something to be said for a device that does 
certain fundamental things well, also providing support for other things but 
not necessarily trying to be at the cutting edge. Maybe these observations 
apply more to the software being pitched for the different phone efforts, but 
I can envisage situations where certain hardware features could be eliminated 
in order to deliver something less ambitious but more satisfactory for those 
whose needs are met.

(In my own personal case, I could only ever imagine using the camera on my 
phone for urgent documentation needs because it really isn't very good. But 
then I'm one of those people who likes to use a "real" camera. However, 
cameras could be offered as modules - DXO tried this for the iPhone - and 
their absence is also of interest to certain niche markets, too.)

> 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
> dialer.
> 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...

>From what I can see...


...the PinePhone is making real progress. Of course, the software providers 
will need to step up, but there is some chance that at least one of them will 
manage to support the hardware decently enough.

As for online banking compatibility, we return to the non-trivial matter of 
making sure that in our societies, the essential services we need to use do 
not make restrictive and unreasonable demands on the software and hardware we 
happen to use.


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