On fairphone, and sustainable electronics

I’ve been a Fairphone user since 2013, when the first phone came out, and I’ve been a user of the FP2, the first phone the company designed fully themselves. In this post, I explain the process of updating it to extend its life, compared with buying a new one, and how hard doing sustainable electronics is.

A bit of background around Fairphone

It’s nice having things like smartphones, and handy electronics, but if you spend any time thinking about what really goes into getting them over to us, you’ll quickly realise there are some very ugly sides to doing so. Many of the minerals going into the electronics we use come from areas wracked by conflict, and conditions inside some factories making them can often be awful, and beyond the human cost, and it’s fair to say that if we do know about it, most of us are either in a state of denial or depression amount of waste created by digging this stuff out of the ground, turning it into chips and so on, and shipping it around the world to us.

Once hardware is with us, it’s often so hard to repair, that’s often cheaper or simpler to buy a new piece of hardware and send the old one to landfill than try to fix this, and the trend across the industry, is generally one that’s making this worse.

In the face of it’s, nice to know there are some companies looking at the problem, and trying to design a solution as if people, and well… the rest of the world mattered, and one of these companies is Fairphone. Coming from roots as a pressure group campaigning about the human cost of the electronics industry, Fairphone is now one of the mist interesting companies making electronics, and I’ve been an owner of both generations of the Fairphone FP1,  and Fairphone FP2 since I first heard of the company in 2012.

Aiming for sustainability through modularity and openness in phones

You can tell Fairphone is a product coming from a group of service designers – one thing I like about it is the attention to the entire lifecycle of the product, as well as how it’s used, to provide alterantive so needing to buy a new phone if you want benefit from the designers of the product learning more about how to improve it.

I’ll give a couple examples below:

Replaceable cases

If you want a phone to last, it’s common to put a handset in some kind of protective case. Of course for many phones this ruins the lines, and as a result it’s common to have a phone exposed to damage, largely to keep it looking comparative sleek and fit well in your pocket.

Fairphone’s approach is to design the phone so the outer casing already is slightly ruggedised to do the job of protecting it, and crucially, easy to replace, so when you DO inevitably drop it or damage it through wear and tear, you can buy just that part. By designing the case with this in mind, you don’t end up needing a bulky protective case that make the phone feel so much larger and awkward to handle.

It might be a stretch to refer to this as modular, but you can see this idea of having replacement parts in the cases. Over the last year and a half, I’ve managed to wear out part of my case, largely by dropping it and general abuse. So, I ended up buying a replacement case the new iterations of the FP2 are now released with. It was easy to replace at home, and it feels like the design is informed by actual user feedback since the original launch – the shape is slimmer making the phone feel smaller and fit better in my pocket, and the new case uses a different, higher quality plastic that is slightly rough, making it feel less slippery making it feel safe in my hand.

 

Better cameras

I think I’ve had my FP2 for about two years now, and over that time, I’ve been largely happy with it, for what I use it for – the GPS works well for way-finding and exercise, and it’s more or less fast enough to be a good working device. The camera hasn’t been great though, and the battery life has been a pain at times.

The new generation of the phone has a better set of cameras, but for existing owners like me, Fairphone have made the camera modules available to order separately.

I ordered them, and replacing them turned out to be straight forward. I know have a new camera, and new case, and the phone largely feels like a new handset, extending the useful life by at least a year or so.

You can see the difference in two somewhat similar photos below:

The limits of this approach

The camera works better now, and I’m a much happier with the case but there are limits. When it was first announced, the Fairphone was released with Android 5. This was okay, but newer versions of the Android operating system have improvements  to how your permissions and privacy work. This year, Fairphone managed to release an update to Android 6, but in many new phones, there’s a new version of the operating system with further improvements.

From what I can tell, the because of some details in the chipset used by the FP2, it either can’t be upgraded to Android 7, or it’s going to be a pain to do so. It’s not a concern right now, but shortens the phone’s useful life.

This is really, really hard

I guess the point of this post was that even Fairphone, one of the world leaders in building electronics in an open, sustainable, largely planet friendly way, have a hard time making a business out of building complex physical product this way, but it still feels worth aiming for, because well… we only have one planet left, and people matter.

If this interests you, you might be interested in the IoTMark project, that came out of the Open Internet of things Certification Mark event run this summer and DotEveryone’s efforts to make a Trustworthy techmark.