Fairphone 2: The ethical Android handset is back with a smart modular construction

Fairphone, the startup that aims to make a more ethical smartphone, is back with a new modular architecture and a design all its own.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
The second generation Fairphone.
The second generation Fairphone.
Image: Fairphone

Two years after it shipped its first device, Fairphone is back with a follow-up.

Amsterdam-headquartered Fairphone made its name with a crowdfunded device that featured more fairly-traded and conflict-free components than a standard handset, which had less of an environmental impact, and gave the Chinese factory workers that built the phone a better deal. The first Fairphone debuted in 2013, and the company has gone on to sell more than 60,000 of the Android devices.

However, despite its ethical credentials, reviews of the first generation handset were lukewarm, criticising its battery, processor, and use of the already-ageing Jelly Bean version of Android.

Now, Fairphone is back with the second generation device which aims to address some of those hardware gripes, as well as step up its sustainability.

"If you consider the modern smartphone design that Apple created in 2007 with the original iPhone, the form factor or anything surrounding the actual device hasn't changed in many many years... what we looked at were the drivers that push users to replace their phone like clockwork every two years," Olivier Hebert, Fairphone's CTO, said.

The first of those drivers, according to Hebert, is that the phone gets broken, smashed, or scratched. With that in mind, Fairphone has tried to make its next device more robust than the average smartphone.

The most noticeable update that the second generation brings is a more modular construction, introduced to allow users to swap out components when they break, rather than having to upgrade their entire device - allowing owners to keep their devices for longer, and keep more old handsets from being ditched prematurely.

To replace a broken or cracked screen - the bugbear of many a smartphone owner - is just a matter of undoing a couple of clips, pulling out the screen unit, and putting an undamaged one in its place.

"We wanted people to be able to open up their devices and to not be afraid of repairing them themselves, so making that first level of repairability without tools so simple," Miquel Ballester, Fairphone's product manager, said. With that in mind, the housing of the components is transparent plastic so users can see into the guts of their phone.

Electromechanical components such as the headphone jack and camera are housed in units that can be removed and replaced by undoing a few Philips or Torkx screws - "anything that interfaces with the real world is usually the stuff that breaks," Hebert said. The replacement units can be bought from Fairphone, and old units returned to the company for recycling and reclaiming of materials.

The construction also means that users can potentially upgrade the core components of their device in future - adding in a more powerful camera unit or application processor, say - without the need to replace the entire handset.

Image: Fairphone

While installing new components is a fairly simple job, the company will be publishing videos on its website to guide users through the process, and will still undertake repairs itself if customers don't feel confident enough to do it at home. Fairphone is looking to set up a network of local repairers in the European countries it sells to in future, to save consumers the wait involved in sending off the device to its Dutch offices.

The company has taken other steps to help owners hold onto their phones for longer, including the introduction of a rubber back-and-sides section - "the outside shell of the phone is the equivalent of a protective case," Hebert said.

While it's not a ruggedised device, the rubber back is designed to give the Fairphone an extra bit of protection in the event of drops and falls. The rubber back section also extends slightly over the front of the device, meaning if it falls face first, it will be the rubber - and not the Gorilla Glass 3 screen - that takes the impact. Fairphone said it working towards the phone surviving several six foot drops, rather than the four foot drop used for some other smartphone models.

The rubber back, like much of the rest of the phone, is replaceable, and in future could be made to include extra components that the device doesn't currently have, such as NFC and wireless charging. Fairphone is also working on a sliding case version of the rubber back and may introduce a flap cover in future.

The device will ship with Android 5.1 Lollipop, and there's other work ongoing to make the software side as accessible as the hardware. "We're doing some interesting things to try to make sure the development environment is available to third party developers as in the same model as AOSP [the Android open source project], what Google is doing," Hebert said.

Fairphone is hoping to get other software companies to bring their mobile OSes to the device, so users can choose the platform they prefer. However, Fairphone had the same aim for its earlier device, but so far its been technically-savvy users, rather than companies themselves, which have managed to port new OSes to the platform. "We're in discussions with just about every alternative operating system vendor out there. It's a question of bandwidth, of attention, and [having] hardware to have to give them to start working with. Because it's a very standardised and well-known platform, it's going to be not so difficult for them to do their port," Hebert said.

On the hardware side, the phone will feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon 801 processor, a five-inch Full HD screen, and dual SIM. It will have 32GB of onboard storage, 2GB of RAM, and an eight-megapixel rear camera.

While the previous version was a reference model licensed from its manufacturer, the second generation Fairphone was designed by the company itself. "Designing a phone is basically designing your own supply chain," Bas van Abel, the company's CEO, said. "You're not only designing the way it looks and functions, you're also engineering what kind of components are going to be used, what kind of materials are going to be used, what kind of factories and suppliers you're going to work with. You even think about what are the manufacturing processes will be used. That's why we had to go from an existing device, where we had to reverse engineer it to have influence over those elements - the most logical step [next] was to create our own phone."

Like its predecessor, the Fairphone 2 will use conflict-free tin and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The company is also working to get fairly-traded gold and tungsten into the second generation device, a move that's been made possible thanks to having greater control over its own supply chain. As the device is Fairphone's own design, it's been able to choose which suppliers it works with - such as AT&S, an Austrian PCB maker which will be using not only fairly-traded gold where possible for its Fairphone components but also what the startup describes as a "very high percentage" of recycled copper.

"With the last phone, which was basically a licensed model from a factory we really wanted to work with, in the end we were not able to dive into the supply chain as much as we would like, because it was an existing supply chain and an existing phone. [With the new phone] we are also trying to work with suppliers to integrate tungsten from Rwanda and fair trade gold, we find because we have more say over the supply chain we've made quite some steps there," Bibi Bleekemolen, impact and innovation at Fairphone, said.

The company has identified the source of its tungsten and gold - Rwanda for the former, Peru for the latter - and is in talks with the smelters and component makers to get the metals into the device's vibration motor and PCB respectively.

And, like the first-generation device, each Fairphone 2 that's sold will generate a contribution to a worker welfare fund. For the first generation Fairhone, with each handset sold, $5 was put into the fund - $2.50 from Fairphone, $2.50 from its Chinese manufacturer Guohong - and used for projects that benefit the Guohong workers across the site where the Fairphone was assembled.

The first generation Fairphone raised around $300,000 for the fund, and workers voted to spend the first allocation from the fund on a bonus for workers. While Fairphone has moved to a new manufacturer as Guohong couldn't build 4G devices, some cash from the second generation Fairphone will still be used for the Guohong fund, as well as to start a new fund with the manufacturer of the second Fairphone, Hi P. The Hi P fund will work along the same lines as the Guohong one, but the amount Fairphone and the manufacturer will contribute is yet to be decided.

Being in charge of its own supply chain also allows Fairphone to get a better insight into how its second tier suppliers operate. The company will be holding assessment meetings with some of them in the next few weeks to get more information on their working conditions and practices, and any opportunities for improvements - improving worker representation, health and safety, or better controlling working hours, for example.

The Fairphone 2 will be priced at €525, and sold within Europe. Pre-orders will open on the company's website in the summer, and the phone is expected ship in the autumn.

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