Written by Brian X. Chen
What would a smartphone look like if it could last for 10 years?
It’s a question that most of us have not had the luxury of pondering. That’s because many smartphones are designed to be replaced every two or three years. And Apple, Samsung and other handset makers unveil new models — along with big marketing campaigns — each year, encouraging us to upgrade.
But bear with me and fantasize for a moment.
If a smartphone were designed to last a decade, it would probably be made so that we could simply open it up to replace a part like a depleted battery or a cracked screen. Many of its components would be able to be upgraded — if you wanted a better camera, you could just swap out the old one for a newer, more powerful one. You could also download software updates from the phone’s maker indefinitely.
Sensible and sustainable, right?
Thinking of what such a device might be like is especially relevant now as phone season — that time of year when tech companies blitz us with new models — begins again. On Wednesday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 14, which bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor. Also this week, Google announced plans to show new Android phones in October. And last month, Samsung introduced an array of cellphones that fold like books.
These latest wares underscore how today’s smartphones aren’t made for longevity. Most of the gadgets come tightly sealed up with glue to keep you out of them. Parts, like cameras and screens, are impossible to upgrade a la carte. Software updates are guaranteed for only a finite amount of time, usually two years for Androids and about five years for iPhones.
Keeping us on such short cycles of smartphone ownership is great for the tech companies and their coffers — but maybe not so much for us and our wallets.
Don Norman, a former vice president for advanced technology at Apple and the author of nearly two dozen books on design, said smartphone makers were guilty of treating consumer technology as if it were fashion wear, releasing products each year that become harder to repair and adding features that hasten obsolescence.
“You want to make the computer out of one piece of metal, and you want it to be as thin as possible,” Norman said. “So you had to make the battery with no case so it gets really hard to get to. You use glue instead of screws.”
Yet the idea of a longer-lasting phone needn’t be a fantasy. One already exists: the $580 Fairphone 4 made by a startup, Fairphone, in Amsterdam. The Fairphone 4, which is sold only in Europe, has a plastic cover that can be easily removed to expose its innards. Its components can be swapped out in minutes by removing a few ordinary screws.
The idea behind the Fairphone is that if you want a phone with new technology, you can get it without having to replace your current device entirely — and if something goes wrong with the phone, like you drop it, it can be easily fixed. That makes the Fairphone the antithesis of most smartphones today and shows how tech companies can design the gadgets differently, for durability and sustainability.
How it could be with the hardware
Take your iPhone or Android phone and look at it closely. Notice how it is shut tight with unique screws that require special screwdrivers. Apple even invented its own screw.
But the Fairphone comes with a small screwdriver that invites you to open up the phone. So, when I began testing it, that was the first thing I did.
Taking the Fairphone apart turned out to be a breeze. Removing its plastic cover revealed its camera, battery, speakers and other components. They were held in place with ordinary screws that could be quickly taken out with the screwdriver. In less than five minutes, I removed all of those parts. In about the same amount of time, I reassembled the phone.
The experience of taking the phone apart was empowering. I had the confidence that if I had to do a repair or some basic maintenance, like swapping in a new camera or battery, I could do so in minutes and for cheap. (Fairphone charges $30 for a new battery and $80 for a new camera.)
Disassembling my iPhone, on the other hand, was a nightmare.
When I took the Apple device apart during a previous test, it involved removing the proprietary screws with a special screwdriver and melting the glue that held the case together. To remove the battery, I had to use tweezers to yank on the tiny strips of glue underneath it. Even though I eventually succeeded in replacing the battery, I broke the iPhone’s screen in the process — and a replacement display cost about $300.
The Fairphone’s plastic cover isn’t pretty, and it would probably pop off if the phone fell on a hard surface. But even less fun would be dropping an Apple or Samsung phone with a glass back, shattering it and shelling out hundreds of dollars to get it repaired (or to get it replaced).
What it was like to use
Using the Fairphone was rather unremarkable. It runs vanilla Android software, which means it can load Google’s apps and software downloaded through the Play store.
But Eva Gouwens, Fairphone’s chief executive, said the company was committed to providing software updates to its phones for as long as possible. These updates are crucial for protecting your hardware from the latest cyberattacks and malware; they also ensure that your phone can run the latest apps.
A Fairphone model that came out six years ago is still getting Android updates. Most Android phones stop getting updates after two years.
The Fairphone 4’s computing processor and camera left much to be desired, however. In speed tests run with the app Geekbench, the Fairphone 4 was about 35% slower than Google’s $600 Pixel 6 at doing things like checking email and taking photos. Pictures produced by the Fairphone 4 were grainier and less attractive than shots taken with iPhones and other mainstream Android phones.
Still, I wouldn’t expect Fairphone’s small team — about 110 people — to crank out computing and camera technology on a par with the big tech companies.
Fairphone said it was making money, generating a few million euros in profit in 2020 and 2021. Beyond selling phones and easy-to-install parts, the company is experimenting with selling services like helping people fix their devices or maintain their smartphone software, Gouwens said. That’s a slow and steady revenue stream as opposed to the more rapid model of selling new phones every year.
“If you design a phone that lasts, and your users actually keep your device and use it longer, then you become more profitable,” she said.
How we think about our personal tech
This column is not about recommending that people buy a Fairphone 4.
The broader point is that tech companies with incredible wealth could do a better job of making their phones easier to repair and friendlier to the environment and our wallets. And we, as consumers, could do better by changing how we think about personal technology, Norman said.
“Consumers do have considerable power but only if people band together,” he said.
One important step is to maintain our devices as we do our cars — consider, for instance, taking a broken device to a repair shop before resorting to replacing it. Another action is to reject the marketing hype over every incremental feature introduced with every new phone.
Because if we’re already happy with our smartphones, we will probably continue to be — so long as they work. And now we know that some models can work for a very long time.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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Written by Brian X. Chen