Modular upgrades for phones are finally here! And about time too. Fairphone owners will be able to slot upgraded camera modules into their phones when they go on sale in September. Whatever you think of Fairphone, this is a major step towards long lasting phones that critics said could never happen. If it catches on, upgradeable phones could end up taking a big old bite out of Apple’s rotten business model, the ewaste problem, child labour and other bad stuff.
Fairphone pulled modular parts out of the hat a couple of years ago so that we could easily replace broken bits without the help of an expert. With upgradeability, we can stay on top of fads as well as technical advances like that which looks set to revolutionise phone cameras in the coming years. Whatever you think of Fairphone, it’s hard to deny they are moving things in the right direction. That hasn’t been easy.
Critics said this step was impossible, including the inventor of the mobile phone, Martin Cooper. Modular phones would just be too big, heavy, expensive and too weak to survive our pockets. Phonebloks came and went, as did Google’s Project ARA. While others struggled with their mojo, Fairphone has managed to get the party started.
Upgrading multiple phone modules will be cheaper than buying new ones over time, Fairphone say. Longer life means less demand for conflict minerals and the ropey working conditions that come with them, including for kids. Ewaste is the fastest growing type of waste there is and phone makers are doing precious little to help. Less waste would mean less hellish landscapes in the developing world. So how come it took a small European start-up to get this off the ground?
Apple and others have grown fabulously wealthy by keeping product cycles short and sales high. Phones take centre stage and are kept just 18 months on average. Apple, the world’s biggest company by market cap, is accused of fighting environmental standards and standing in the way of lawmakers that want to boost repair. This struggle became very public when the Error 53 incident blew up.
Phones could be the tip of the iceberg. Manufacturers are accused of deliberately making gadgets and cars harder for individuals and non-brand workshops to repair, sparking a ‘right to repair’ movement. No wonder the EU is pushing for more modularity as a way to combat waste.
For the record, we are not saying modularity is a silver bullet. Like any technology it can be abused. Another aspiring startup, Puzzlephone, has long maintained that if abused, modularity could make the ewaste problem worse. Customers must not be tricked into buying stuff they don’t need. Even now, Apple could slap down Fairphone’s modularity move by saying ‘our camera is lightyears ahead and your modules will only end up creating more waste as they try to bridge the gap.’ The only credible response is to bring out modules that leapfrog performance well beyond the current market leader, rather than flogging a series of weak upgrades to make money rather than honour the ethical objectives. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. For now, let’s reward Fairphone with a slice of Apple pie.
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