Fighting Electronic Waste With Software That Gives Smartphones a Ten-Year Lifespan

Smartphones have been a wonderful development for the world in many ways, but not so for the environment.Smartphones haven't been made to last under our everyday usage, both in terms of hardware wearing out, and software support abruptly ending for still competent yet older devices.

Author Tristan Rayner, 01.25.18

Smartphones have been a wonderful development for the world in many ways, but not so for the environment.

Smartphones haven’t been made to last under our everyday usage, both in terms of hardware wearing out, and software support abruptly ending for still competent yet older devices.

Too often, the major operating systems cease support for older phones, as short as just 24-months after purchase. Manufacturers need to keep costs low and continue research and development into the next big smartphone, rushing forward without looking back more than they to. OEMs have little incentive to continue to service old devices.

Another factor is that consumers are already in the habit of purchasing a new smartphone on a two-year cycle, often dictated by phone network or carrier plans. Blame doesn’t just lie with manufacturers though. App developers also are keen to support new hardware features, offering updates to their apps that aren’t supported by older phones. As a result of all of this, we are seeing older smartphones with critical security bugs that are not patched. That makes them risky to use as you fill them with your sensitive data.

Our old devices become either living electronic waste, bound for the inevitable scrapheap, or accumulate in bottom drawers, to be forgotten. Whereas laptops and PCs age more gracefully, premium phones now cost somewhere in the ballpark of a competent new notebook, but don’t last nearly as long. A backlash is growing towards the wasteful behaviours of manufacturers – with ethical smartphones and public reports on electronics companies’ green (or not-so-green) credentials.

Android phones are more adaptable than iPhones and can be more easily rooted, which means running the device with root access to core software. That access allows users to run different, compatible operating systems, called ROMs.

Android ROMs are types of Android operating system that are differently customised to manufacturers’ default offerings. Custom ROMs – such as LineageOS – are popular ways of removing unwanted or unnecessary software that may be bundled with a phone and offer a ‘stock’ Android experience.

A new open-source OS is making its way to market called postmarketOS. It goes one step further, offering an OS for smartphones outside of Android or iOS, building a true alternative for users with a goal to dramatically increase the lifespan of a smartphone. The goal for the developers is environmentally-minded, seeking to give new life to smartphones well beyond their current best-before date which is rarely more than 2-3 years.

postmarketOS is aiming to increase the usability of a device to ten years, and while the project is still in development, it’s built on a Linux distribution and in active development to support both more devices, and to offer more functionality.

The not-so-secret secret to what the project is attempting to do is in the kernel, the closest software layer to the internal hardware including CPU, RAM, and hard drive, which is configured for each device. Once configured, the additional software layers on top of the kernel can be used across every device and can be updated as necessary. By doing this, the lifespans of devices can be greatly improved. It is not altogether different to the original creation of Android, which is also built on Linux, but here it has very different aims.

Right now, postmarketOS is only available for a short number of compatible devices and isn’t recommended for anyone who isn’t familiar with Linux, and coding. It’s not yet a viable option for anyone but enthusiasts – but the list of supported phones is growing to include more phones and more features – older devices including including the Google Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Nexus 5P, and Nexus 7, the Moto G 2013 and 2015, and a handful of Samsung, Sony, LG, OnePlus, and HTC devices are said to be working.

Development has been commendably rapid for such a complex project, but it should be noted that it’s still in such an early stage that phone calls cannot currently be made – but it’s only a matter of time for the talented project contributors.

Will this see a true ten-year lifespan? Probably not. Battery life is a physical limitation and they will degrade overtime, and having a phone plugged in all the time defeats the purpose of having a smartphone. But i’s possible that the ‘phone’ element could be forgotten, utilising a postmarketOS device as a file server or IoT device.

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