We need to talk about smartphone innovation

Originally published at: https://www.fairphone.com/en/2020/05/19/we-need-to-talk-about-smartphone-innovation/

Dear smartphone industry, I think it’s about time we have an honest discussion about one of the guiding principles of this business. Let’s talk about “innovation”.

Now that the world has slowed down, I have found some time to ponder the questions surrounding this buzzword. And to be honest, we’re even getting these initial questions wrong. Should it really be about how we are innovating and which project is the newest disruptor, or should we start asking why we’re pursuing these things and on what level?

Over the past few years, we’ve been experiencing “innovation” in its literal, material form, while the drumbeat of reveals and releases steadily became more frantic.

The rapid succession of these innovations has led us to the point where the next big thing is always just around the corner, yet rarely ever amazes anymore. The race for bezel-less screens, in-display fingerprint readers and the rear-camera count is in full swing. Don’t get me wrong. I see the appeal in a lot of these hardware upgrades – But is the functional improvement between flagships big enough to justify treating smartphones as a disposable commodity?

Let’s take the term “innovation” and expand it from the 100-megapixel range to a broader company level. While staying at home, I’ve been getting into gardening, so forgive my vegetable reference, but imagine a company as an onion of concentric layers. The outermost layer or surface level would be communications — how brands express themselves. Peel it back one layer, and you see marketing — of the services, promotions, pricing, and products made by the business. Beyond that lies the core, upon which everything else is built – the business values, culture, processes, and systems. Let’s stop thinking of innovation as a surface level commitment. For all companies, innovation needs to be more profound. Not token gestures on the outer layer, but a fundamental rewiring of business from the core.

Bas van Abel shares Fairphone’s origin story at TED x Amsterdam.

Fairphone wants to challenge the dominant story about what’s right, what’s normal, and what’s possible. By demonstrating solutions, calling upon the industry to embrace those solutions, and giving consumers a choice, Fairphone seeks to transform first itself, then the electronics industry, and ultimately the entire consumer economy.

We are staffed, funded and supported by people who believe that a just and circular economy is not only possible; it’s essential.

And it’s being built today, which is not a moment too soon because technology will create vast and profound shifts. The mobile-first world has yet to really arrive. The problem is that building a new smartphone, specifically mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade. But the trend behind the scenes of this industry seems counter-intuitive: The more smartphones have become similar, the more we are told that they are different — and this is still working for tech giants. Tech-sites are rigorously comparing and ranking data on differences, for which you need specialized knowledge to describe to what extent the effects it produces are exactly ‘different.’

We are being directed to pay attention to incremental changes while the use-value of smartphones is very similar. A lot of what is sold as a material benefit is just psychological. Or put differently, tech-specs are not the guiding factor you’d want them to be. Rather than obsessing about the minor details that still distinguish smartphones, it would be more honest to say that most smartphones are now identical. Grand product releases try to hide the elephant in the room: there is almost no innovation taking place at the technological level. The smartphone in 2020 is pretty much the same as it was in 2019. That’s a good thing. It means that, If you have a working smartphone, you’re probably well off ignoring all the talk about innovation for a while and hold on to it. That’s right; the most sustainable phone is the one you already own.


I think the current state of this type of commodity market is a bellwether of worldwide inequality and the stage of capitalism we’re at. After all, when Apple starts selling budget phones you know the big corporations are getting desperate. The affluent hipster market is shrinking as people have ever less money to spend, so gimmicks are advertised in order to still get people to spend money on gadgets, and reduced pricing and planned obsolescence are implemented so that the poor can still be bilked out of their money.

Iridescent backs, a million cameras, under-screen fingerprint readers - and an ever growing global army of ad companies and paid shills dedicated to convincing us that we really need this stuff, and if you’re walking around with a perfectly functioning phone without a screen that can show a billion colours you’re so behind on the times… meanwhile, actually urgent and important innovations, such as an industrial process that doesn’t drive the workers who make our phones to suicide, are hardly discussed. Real late Roman empire vibes.

Like Žižek said, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism - and the corporations are making sure we imagine neither. Economies and profits will grow forever, the world will never change. We’re driven to dream about folding phones with three screens and pop-out selfie cameras so we don’t dream about this impossible, unattainable world where the production of a phone doesn’t ruin lives and the environment.


I’m interested in getting a FP, but am currently prevented due to the radio support in North America. … waiting patiently… I also am a builder/maker who wishes that a phone would do a lot more in certain areas, which do not have enough widespread support to incorporate them in to the phone itself. However, the idea of a fairly small phone cradle that has a modular set of functionalities (such as Google’s project Ara, https://www.theverge.com/google/2016/5/20/11723508/google-project-ara-modular-phone-photos-io-2016 now cancelled, that involved such modules for a phone) that could be added to any phone via the USB port would definitely help extend the utility of a single phone.
For me, having a laser pointer, scanner, measure, and level (using the same laser(s) would be incredibly useful, as would more battery life. The phone itself has the computational, gyro, GPS, and stabilization sensors that are needed. Also a thermal camera; you can buy such devices and some of them work quite well, but the most popular are hindered by very bad software, and some very suspect EULAs. The thermal camera could also be sold to cooks as well as to construction and energy geeks, so the market is larger than you might think… This is one of those chicken and egg situations where the market could be very large for such a thing, but no one will try it until it’s proven to be useful.

FP seems to be trying to iterate on the ‘Ara’ idea in terms of modularizing the phone to make it more upgradeable & and repairable. Any thoughts about maybe just adding the laser part of it? That by itself would be a valuable addition…

I wouldn’t put it that way - after all, Fairphone was founded before Ara was even announced.

Granted, the FP1 wasn’t modular, just repairable, so later FP devices may have been influenced by these modular concepts. Still, the modularity of the FP2 and FP3 didn’t spring from a drive for upgradeability but one for repairability. The idea people have about Fairphones being upgradable comes mostly from the lofty promises of those unrealised concepts - in fact, for the FP3, Fairphone have gone to some lengths to make clear that the device isn’t built for upgrades, but for repairs.

So long story short, specialised addons are most likely going to come from the community, not the company. A number of custom FP parts have already been designed and produced by community members, notably a USB-C module for the FP2 and a prototyping shield that allows the user to experiment in a variety of ways.

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