Smart covers, new cameras: Where the world's most ethical smartphone goes next

After three years of making handsets, Fairphone is looking to grow beyond its startup roots.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

A partially disassembled Fairphone 2.

Image: Jo Best/ZDNet

Back in 2013, Fairphone managed to pull off something revolutionary in the smartphone industry: a handset that put ethics front and centre. Two years later, it did something just as groundbreaking: it launched a truly modular handset ahead of rivals like Google and LG.

Six months after shipping the Fairphone 2, a handset designed to enable the average user to swap out components when they get broken or damaged, Fairphone is considering the next step for its modular device.

For Fairphone, the impulse behind building a modular device was an environmental one: a way to extend the lifespan of mobile handsets and so cut the number that end up in landfill. "I think that we had enough of devices that we can just use as they come and then throw away," Miquel Ballester, product lead at Fairphone, told ZDNet.

The company also launched the Fairphone 2 with a robust cover designed to reduce the incidence of broken screens, so reducing the environmental burden associated with replacing one of the most commonly broken bits of hardware.

Now, with the Fairphone 2 having been in users' hands for around six months, Fairphone reports that screens are getting broken less often than with the Fairphone 1, thanks not only to the cover, but to the company's decision to use a drop-test threshold of 1.85m rather than 1m.

"It's a little bit of a joke -- we say this is the size of a tall Dutch guy. But it's also a bit more realistic -- you possibly drop the phone more when you are talking," Ballester said -- so using a drop test that mimics the average distance between a consumer's mouth and the floor makes more sense.

But that back cover -- and the other modular components of the Fairphone 2 -- could soon be getting some company, as Fairphone is looking into expanding the range of modules available for the device beyond simply replacement parts.

The company is looking at manufacturing different back covers for the phone -- an element of its design some users have found less than aesthetically pleasing. "From the whole device, the one thing that we're not so scared of considering more trends and the fashion perspective is the back cover, because it has a very low environmental footprint compared with the hardware... with those new covers we could refresh the look of the phone and make it more appealing to a certain type of customer," Ballester said.

But a new back cover wouldn't just have good looks in mind -- it would have brains too. Fairphone is looking into whether new covers could be made that also bring extra functionality to the phone itself, such as NFC, or to extend its battery life. Elsewhere, the company is also considering a camera module that would be a step up on the one that originally shipped with the Fairphone 2, an eight-megapixel rear snapper.

"We think the camera is a good one to refresh and bring a little more quality to it... it's more from the perspective of keeping the device relevant in the market," Ballester said. The new modules should be on sale at the tail end of the year.

In keeping with the company's ethos, Fairphone will shortly be publishing the technical documentation around the phone's expansion port, theoretically allowing other manufacturers to make modules for the Fairphone 2. Given the company is still a minnow in the smartphone market, it may not be an offer hardware companies take up just yet.

"We think it's important to be open as much as possible and let others use our platform, but of course it still remains challenging for certain companies to develop something for such a small customer base. That would be a first step for when our customer base is bigger," Ballester said.

So far, around 45,000 Fairphone 2's have shipped, of which 20,000 were bought and paid for on pre-order. In total, the company has sold over 100,000 devices.

With three years in the business behind it, the startup is now looking to grow up: it's considering how to grow the business in the long term, from simple things like improving stock levels so customers don't have to wait when they order a new device to building up relationships with operators.

Mobile network providers are the gatekeepers for a good chunk of smartphone sales, using new hardware as a carrot to encourage customers to sign up to new tariffs every 18 months or two years. You'd be forgiven then for assuming that modular phones would be against their interests, removing their powerful incentive to tie customers into contracts.

Not so, says Ballester. "What I try to make them see is that they can have an easier way to retain their customers... when they get towards the end of a contract, a lot of customers' natural behavior would be to ask for a new phone, but with modular devices, there's a new landscape of opportunity, you don't have to replace the whole device with the obvious environment footprint and the footprint on the cost side of things."

The risk, however, with encouraging users to hang onto their phones and upgrade them piecemeal rather than wholesale, is that they might ultimately end up buying more than one handset's worth of hardware in components: good news for operators, not great for the environment.

It's a risk that's particularly strong with the type of modularization espoused by Google and LG, where modules are designed to encourage customization and personalization, not a long device life.

"Using modularity as a product customization feature has the risk of lowering the threshold for people to buy new hardware," said Ballester.

He says extreme modularity could cause a hardware equivalent of what happened with apps after the first iPhone launched: confronted with so much choice, people downloaded all the apps they could, not really thinking about which ones they really wanted or needed. On an environmental level, the app explosion wasn't such a problem -- but a hardware equivalent would have a massive environmental footprint. "I believe extreme modularization may lower the threshold for people to buy new hardware, and could actually increase the amount of hardware in the market," he said.

Ultimately, Fairphone would like modularization to extend the average lifespan of a device from the two years or so it is today to around five years.

However, the eventual lifespan of a device is not entirely in the hands of its maker or owner: the OS has its role to play too. Take the Fairphone 1 for example: released with Android 4.2.2, the handset was recently updated to 4.4, but whether it will be upgraded any further is a different matter and not one in Fairphone's hands.

"In the end, it's a matter of licenses and a matter of what the chipset manufacturers support or not -- if chipset manufacturers don't support the upgrade, it's difficult for the manufacturer of the device to get access to the right tools to do that upgrade," Ballester said -- a situation that left Fairphone initially unsure of whether if would be able to upgrade to 4.4.

It's also a situation that the company hopes will have improved with Fairphone 2 thanks to its decision to switch supplier from the Fairphone 1's MediaTek to Qualcomm, hoping its new chipmaker will keep supporting its 801 processor for a long time. "We will always try to keep on updating for sure," he added.

Having recently introduced fairly-traded tungsten to its hardware supply chain -- the fourth such metal -- the company is now looking at where to go next to improve the device's social and environmental footprint.

One thing it's not looking at -- perhaps unsurprisingly given the aim of a five-year lifespan for its handset -- is the Fairphone 3, according to Ballester.

"We are still not thinking about Fairphone 3. [The next device] could also be a respin of Fairphone 2. If you look at how smartphones are developing, there's not much more we are going to do with them. They can become bigger or smaller or have more computing capacity, but in the end it comes back to the way they are built and the form factor and what they do. I think we will see a kind of slowing down of that fast smartphone development. That's also why I'm hopeful that we can use the Fairphone 2 platform for a very long time."

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