Is a smartphone more like a car or a pair of socks? When you buy a car, you accept the inconvenience of maintaining something that will last – hopefully – for many years. When you buy a pair of socks, you just want something that makes your ankles look natty and keeps your feet warm. Unless you are particularly frugal or have a passion for darning, most socks are destined for the dustbin the moment a toe pokes through.
For the last 20 years, mobile phones have been treated much like socks. A Greenpeace survey this summer found that consumers in the United States, Russia, Mexico, Germany, China and South Korea own, on average, more than four mobiles each. Hundreds of thousands of phones are discarded each day, and the UN forecast that global electronic waste (or e-waste) would grow by a third over the last three years.
While individual companies, including Apple, are trying to make their phones greener by avoiding toxic chemicals and conflict minerals, the constant cycle of obsolescence and upgrade shows no sign of slowing down.
Fairphone, a Dutch company, thinks that the conditioning of consumers to treat phones as disposable items has contributed to the problem. Fairphone sells what is almost certainly the greenest smartphone on the planet: made from conflict-free materials, built in factories with good working conditions, and designed for easy repair, upgrade and eventual recycling. The company hopes that its current model, the Android-powered Fairphone 2, will last between three and five years before needing replacement.
“The concept that we could sell a person one phone, once, would be ideal, but it’s impossible,” says Tessa Wernink, Fairphone’s co-founder. “However, we think that through the design of the phone we can create impact in the way people use the phone.”
For example, a broken screen on the Fairphone 2 can be replaced using everyday tools in under a minute, and everything from spare batteries to audio jacks can be purchased online. An expansion port inside the Fairphone 2 even allows users to add new features, such as contactless payment technology, when they need it.
The concept of modularity appeals to Dave Hakkens, a designer from the Netherlands. In 2012, Hakkens came up with Phone Bloks – dozens of electronics modules that could be snapped together in different combinations to make a personalised phone.
“It’s weird that there are so many smartphones out there but they’re pretty much all the same,” says Hakkens. “For example, I talked with a woman who’s diabetic. She didn’t care about having a camera on her phone but she really wanted a glucose meter.” A modular phone would let people choose the functionality they wanted, as well as replace or upgrade modules easily.
The idea struck a chord. A division of Google took Hakkens’s idea and spun it into Project Ara, a smartphone with six flexible slots that could accommodate accessories such as high-quality microphones and speakers, energy-efficient e-ink screens and fitness trackers. Google demonstrated a functional prototype in 2015 and chose Puerto Rico for a pilot of the technology, with around 30 different modules. Panic buttons, torches, professional-level cameras and even an automated pillbox were all touted as possible add-ons.
Then in September, Google abruptly pulled the plug on Project Ara, choosing instead to launch an all-singing, all-dancing premium smartphone called Pixel, in a clear attempt to compete with the iPhone. “Apple is always trying to make phones slimmer,” says a disappointed Hakkens. “But at some point you have to wonder what kind of functionality can there be in a phone without making it too thin.”
The main stumbling block seems to be consumers. TCO, a non-profit organisation based in Stockholm, has spent 20 years certifying technology products for energy efficiency and sustainability. Although it endorses dozens of laptops and personal computers, there are no smartphones on the market today that meet its standards. “Corporate and public-sector buyers put a lot of pressure on the industry to move business technology in the right direction,” says Clare Hobby of TCO. “But consumers are much less organised. While they want products that are sustainably designed, they don’t follow through when it comes to purchasing.”
Greenpeace’s survey captures this ambivalence. Over 80% of global respondents said that phones should be simple to repair and designed to last, and more than half thought that manufacturers release too many new models. However, a third also admitted that they had bought their most recent phone just to own the latest device.
But the idea of modularity is not dead yet. Motorola, now part of Chinese computing firm Lenovo, offers magnetic speakers, zoom cameras and digital-projector accessories for its latest smartphones. And NexPaq, a startup, is planning to sell protective cases with slots for batteries, speakers, memory cards and sensors for air quality, temperature and humidity. These can be swapped between different phones and operating systems.
“We know there are people who are excited about modularity,” says Hakkens. “It might seem like a small group but considering the size of the smartphone market, it’s still pretty massive.”
Possibly the most exciting recent development is Facebook’s acquisition in September of Nascent Objects, a crowdfunded startup that was working on building blocks for all kinds of hardware. Nascent’s founders disassembled 600 gadgets and found that 80% could be built from just 15 electronic components. They were in the process of manufacturing a kit that could recombine 3D-printed shells, batteries, cameras, speakers and displays into a range of gadgets from security cameras and Wi-Fi speakers to domestic water-use monitors.
Facebook now intends to use Nascent’s technology to produce its own devices. Whether or not Facebook’s foray into modularity is more successful than Google’s, the prospects of Fairphone, at least, are looking up: it has sold Fairphone 2s to around 50,000 people in Europe so far this year. It hopes not to see those customers again, bar the odd replacement screen or battery, until 2021. By then, perhaps, non-modular gadgets might have gone the way of worn-out socks.