The Fairphone is a modular handset designed with repairability and ethical sourcing of its materials as headline features. It sold 60,000 units. Amazingly, for what sounds like a nerd-phone, almost half of those buyers had never owned a smartphone before.
Now the Fairphone 2 is launching, and with a totally-new, in-house design. The new phone is even easier to repair, and because it was wholly designed by the FairPhone team, its supply chain is even more responsible than ever.
The Fairphone is thicker than the latest iPhone or Samsung flagship, but that’s the point. Instead of packing everything into a tiny case and keeping it there with glue, the Fairphone is designed to be taken apart. The lightweight magnesium frame supports modules that can be easily replaced by the user. “We have designed it with an aim to last three to five years, looking at making it robust and modular–for repairability,” says Fairphone’s chief communications officer, Tessa Wernink. “Obviously how long it lasts depends quite heavily on the user, so what we as a company are doing is offering an ecosystem around the phone that supports long-lasting use, first-hand or second-hand.”
Inside the case (itself one of several options) you’ll find the core unit, containing all the chips and radios; a replaceable battery pack; a display that can be snapped off and replaced without any tools (not even a screwdriver); a receiver unit, which contains the front camera, sensors; the headset connector and microphones; a speaker/vibrator unit; and a camera module.
These modules are designed to balance manufacturing complexity with repairability. For instance, the display comes as a standalone unit, but less-vulnerable components are bundled into one module. The camera, which people are most likely to upgrade as better versions become available, is also housed in its own module. That way you don’t need to toss out your whole phone just to get a better camera. “In fact, the motto from the maker movement ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it’ has been a guiding principle in our design,” says Wernink. To this end, spare parts can be ordered direct from the Fairphone website.
That’s the standard spec, and offers everything the ethical buyer might want, including a highly customized version of the Android operating system (v5.1). But enthusiasts can go further. “We have included an expansion port in the back of the transceiver,” says Wernink. “This expansion port provides the option to build alternative back covers with integrated additional functionality–for example, adding NFC for payments.”
This port is custom-made for hackability. It uses the standard USB spec to provide power and connectivity, and “is designed to connect to additional circuitry in the specially designed outer case through a set of spring-loaded connector (pogo) pins,” says Wernink.
Apart from being better as a plain phone, and as a platform for makers and hackers, the new in-house design let Fairphone improve the phone’s ethical aspect.
Most of the rare-earth metals needed to build the electronics in your gadgets come from China, and those mines can be hellholes, both environmentally, and for the people who work in them. But Fairphone sources its rare-earth metals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the very heart of conflict mining. Why?
As the company explains: “While conflict-free minerals are certainly available from other countries, our goal is to work directly where we can contribute to alternatives to current mining practices, empowering workers and improving the livelihoods of the local population. We want to become a vehicle for change in the regions that need it most.”
“Our customers include people who are concerned about the social and environmental effects of our consumer society and the waste that is generated by the short cycles of replacing our electronics,” Wernink says. “Concerned about the sourcing of materials and the consequences for miners, for the people who put together phones and their working conditions and in general the value we add of their purchases to the value chain.“
If you’re concerned about coffee producers getting ripped off and exploited, you can buy Fair Trade coffee, or buy from a roaster that works directly with the growers. Until now, doing this for gadgets has been almost impossible, but if you were looking for a fair-trade handset, this is it. The materials are sourced from conflict-free mines, but they are also chosen with recyclability in mind.
“We’ve tried to limit composite materials, favoring homogenous materials,” says Fairphone. “We’ve also tried to use as many recycled materials as possible. We designed the parts to reduce secondary operations and additional processing, and we’ve reduced the use of coatings to a bare minimum.” Future plans will explore the de-manufacturing processes, so the valuable materials in the phones can be recycled or reused.
As phones become more complex, squeezing more and more functions into ever sleeker cases, it seems unlikely that repairability is likely to improve at the leading edge of the market. IFixit, source of step-by-step repair guides for gadgets, also maintains a Smartphone Repairability list. Phones get a score out of 10 (the best), based on ease of repair, ease or difficulty of opening the device, and complexity of replacing components, among other criteria.
The iPhone 6 scores seven, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 both scores a four, but the most interesting fact is that the highest-scoring phones (nine points), both from Motorola, were made in 2011. In fact, almost all the highest scoring (eight points or better) phones are all a few years old, indicating that repairability is getting worse, not better.
If you just read the Fairphone manifesto, you’d be forgiven for imagining it as a huge, ugly machine, a beast that advertises its worthiness through a disregard for aesthetics. As it is, the Fairphone is actually pretty sweet phone. It’s thicker than the latest and best models from other manufacturers, but not by that much. You might see one and assume that it’s a top-of-the-line handset from a year or two back. Given that the body of the phone also functions as a tough case, a Fairphone may actually end up smaller in your pocket than something encased in a pink plastic Hello Kitty cover.
The Fairphone has one other advantage over most other Android handsets, too. The company offers “timely and continuous software security updates,” something only iPhone users usually enjoy. For many, the promise of regular software updates might be reason enough to switch, and in the future there may even be a choice of operating systems.
So just who does buy the Fairphone? Germans, says Wernink. More specifically, 37.5-year-old Germans with masters degrees. These are the results of a survey done by Fairphone, which breaks down buyers by country, age, and other demographics. The Eurocentric nature of the audience is mostly thanks to the fact that Fairphone is based in the Netherlands, but even then, it skews heavily to the countries you associate with progressive politics: Switzerland and the Netherlands, with France and the U.K. coming close behind.
Hopefully, the Fairphone 2 will succeed further afield. Only then will the big players in the phone business start to feel any pressure to change their own practices.