Hi everyone, I've been thinking about the environmental and socioeconomic impact of smartphones a lot recently.
I've been thinking about the environmental and socioeconomic impact of smartphones a lot recently. I worry that in the rush to be successful HMD might be ignoring some important considerations which could ultimately prevent them getting the Nokia brand back to where it used to be. I'm going to explain my concerns and make some recommendations that I hope HMD are already considering, or will begin to consider.
Smartphone manufacture consumes a lot of resources and typically they are bought and used for ~2 years then replaced. This is a huge usage of resources and becomes a waste when the phone itself is still perfectly fine to use when it is discarded - a waste of the resources spent making it in the first place, and a significant physical waste which must be managed to avoid environmental harm.
Many smartphones are now designed so they are very difficult to repair - often it will cost more than buying a new phone. This means that many phones with minor faults are thrown away, which again creates a huge amount of unnecessary waste. I know that Nokia phones are built stronger than most, but sometimes even these phones can get damaged. The iFixit website scores smartphones on their repairability: https://www.ifixit.com/smartphone-repairability. There are no new Nokias on the list yet, but unfortunately I don't think the top-end phones would score very highly.
As well as ecological and environmental impact there's also the socioeconomic impact of smartphone manufacture. Unfortunately many manufacturers still don't treat their employees very well and the materials they use are often sourced from parts of the world that are suffering from severe corruption and even war, fueled by the trade in these materials. I don't know much about HMD and Nokia's position on this but their manufacturer, Foxconn (FIH I think the correct name is) have been criticised in the past for some of their practices in this area.
There is a manufacturer who is considering all of the above issues in its products. Their name is Fairphone, and their phones try to maximise the use of eco-friendly, fairtrade materials and manufacturing, together with a modular approach so they can be easily repaired.
Greenpeace recently made a report on electronics manufacture: https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/campaigns/detox/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/. It doesn't include HMD/Nokia/FIH, but you can see that Fairphone is at the top, which you would expect, and the next is Apple - surely HMD want to be considered a competitor to Apple? If Greenpeace do this report again I hope to see the HMD/Nokia/FIH partnership at or near the top. In the old days Nokia was very well respected in this area, I hope the new partnership is following the same approach.
Now, I want to talk about beyond "end of life". As I said, the typical "first" lifetime of smartphones is ~2 years. We don't yet know what HMD will do once the phones are out of the two year warranty and they're no longer providing major, minor and security updates. We've asked for their policy on these updates, but AFAIK they've said nothing, and without this statement we don't know how long we will be able to continue to use our phones for and remain secure.
If HMD stop providing security updates then there is another option for users to continue to use these phones and remain secure - alternative OSes or "custom ROMs". These are quite popular for Android phones but to use them the phone's bootloader must be unlocked and so far HMD have not provided this functionality, although they have said they are working on it (I think). I sincerely hope they are being serious, because if the security updates stop then users should be able to replace the software with another OS of their choosing. LineageOS is the best known example of a custom ROM, but I know that many owners of new Nokias would like to be able to use SailfishOS as well.
However, even custom ROMs are limited because the drivers for Android are private, we can't see the source code. This means we can't update them if vulnerabilities are found. Custom ROMs can extend the life of phones for a few years, but beyond ~5 years gets very difficult. What we really need are drivers that can be maintained and updated.
If Fairphone are the gold standard in eco-friendly, fairtrade, repairable hardware, then for software we should actually be looking beyond custom ROMs and looking at postmarketOS. This is a project to provide a GNU/Linux distro (based on Alpine Linux) for phones so they can be kept up to date and secure for several years. My hope is that HMD can provide hardware interface information to the project so that the postmarketOS team can write new drivers for HMD phones once they are more than two years old and therefore out of warranty and no longer HMD's responsibility. I know this is a long shot, but if HMD want to appear different from the hundreds (thousands?) of other makers of Android phones then maybe they'll do it.
Now, you'll have to excuse me, I made a mistake! The gold standard for "repairable" software is actually Purism. They are making a smartphone which will run GNU/Linux based on Debian out of the box. Unfortunately, HMD can't take the same approach and keep using Android (AFAIK) because of the bionic library that is used for drivers in Android. However, in the past there was a Nokia GNU/Linux OS that was based on Debian, and we know how HMD like to bring back retro phones!
Thanks for reading all the way to the end
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