circular economy technology

Looking forward to the ten year smartphone

Can you imagine owning a smartphone that wouldn’t slow down over time, with a battery that doesn’t decline to the point of uselessness, and that can be repaired if a part breaks? The Ten Year Smartphone campaign have been imagining just such a device:

You may or may not have caught it from the video, but you certainly would catch it if you clicked through to order the 10 Year Smartphone – it doesn’t exist.

This is a parody crowdfunding campaign from Right to Repair, drawing attention to the way that smartphones are designed to fail within a couple of years so that we have to keep replacing them. In many cases the whole phone has to be replaced if just one part fails, because it can’t be opened for repair, and no spare parts are available anyway.

Why shouldn’t you be able to keep your phone for four or five years rather than one or two? As the video points out, it wasn’t so long ago that you could open a phone and slip in a new battery. Why stop? But then the iPhone 13 just launched, less than a year after the iPhone 12. That’s why. There are phones to sell. There is only so much ‘innovation’ that happened between 12 and 13. It’s hardly going to be a giant leap forward. But it’s new. If you worship at the temple of Apple, you’ll be in the queue.

Sometimes accusations of planned obsolescence are exaggerated, but not in this case. The repair group iFixit rates the iPhone 13 and mediocre 5 out of 10 for repairability. It’s not because you can’t open the phone or swap parts. (iPhones are now built on a modular parts system, copying the model pioneered by Fairphone.) What iFixit’s engineers discovered is that Apple have written software that rejects new parts. So even though it’s relatively easy to put new parts in, you can’t, and that’s why iFixit called it “a new low for repairability”. It’s fairly obvious who is the design priority here, and it’s not the user.

There’s a high price to pay for this replacement rate – higher rates of resource extraction at one end, and higher heaps of waste electronics at the other. Both of those costs are paid by other people in other parts of the world, not by those most likely to get a new smartphone every year.

Some European countries are driving up standards on repairability – see the new ratings being adopted in France for example. Right to Repair have a series of proposals on that and a letter to sign, and the 10 Year Smartphone campaign has the details.

9 comments

  1. I am just glad I grew up in a time when not everyone needed to be constantly connected to devices. I wish you well in your pursuit, but I for one will not have anybody calling me while I am out fishing. Thanks.

  2. I’m writing this on my Galaxy S4 from Samsung – first shown in 2013. OK, not quite 10 years old but close. Like many technologies smartphones reached maturity as the form and concept chrystalised and then went into “peacock” mode where evolution stopped adding anything truly useful. There are a few apps my phone won’t run, but nothing I deem necessary, and I honestly don’t know what the latest Android could offer that mine doesn’t do well enough. Having bought mine outright, second hand, and having a SIM only contract, I am not being constantly encouraged by my network provider to upgrade and I think it is here that a lot of the problem lies ( in this country at least) as anecdotally I believe many people only update when a new phone is offered under their network contract

    1. It’s a good point – I think the ‘peacock’ mode of evolution is a good way of putting it – does Apple deserve its reputation for innovation, as it trots out the 13th model of the same thing? A lot of the new features are gimmicks or incremental improvements.

      Was the Galaxy S4 expensive when you bought it, out of interest? Because I’ve never had a phone last quite that long – four or five years at best. But I’ve always bought mid-range phones, and I wonder if I’ve missed a trick by not spending more on a higher quality device.

      1. It was probably around £100 (it’s so long ago I can’t remember!). I do remember picking this model specifically because it had a good reputation and was, in its day, a fairly high end phone.
        Not long after, I bought my wife a second hand S5, which is still going strong (just ordered a new battery the other day) and, despite it being on a later version of Android, there is nothing about it that makes it seem better than mine.
        An advantage of Android phones is that, even if the manufacturer doesn’t supply OS updates (which Samsung seem quite bad at) there are wonderful people on the internet who provide instructions and software links to do it yourself. I did this recently on a Galaxy tablet I bought new back in 2015 and it worked a treat.

  3. Yes, I’ve tended to prefer Android for that reason too. I suspect that picking up a very good secondhand Android phone and stripping it to the software basics would be a good way to get a durable phone.

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