The Quest for a 10-Year Smartphone

In the summer of 2008, I bought my first smart phone. A Nokia E71, running the Symbian operating system, this phone is pretty dumb by today’s standards. It has no touchscreen, and even at the height of its popularity could only run a relative handful of apps. But it has managed to achieve something few smart phones today are capable of pulling off: it still works, 10 years later. It’s still my daily phone.

The Nokia E71. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Okay, I only use it for calls and texts, occasional voice recordings, and taking notes. The GPS is useless, web browsing is laughably clunky and insecure, the camera sucks, and I can’t even get my email on it anymore. But it’s a champ at doing the things I need it to do, and it runs four to five days on a charge. I did have to replace the battery a few years ago. It took two minutes: I opened the back compartment, pulled out the old battery, put in the new. Take a look at the iFixit website to see the painstaking multi-step odyssey you’d have to go through (with specialized tools) to replace the battery on most modern phones.

I’ve resisted getting a new phone for a long time, but did recently buy a cheap refurbished Android to use as a travel phone so I wouldn’t have to bring a separate GPS with me on trips. The phone was manufactured in 2015, but already — in early 2018 — it is beyond its useful life. It got its last Android security patch in April 2017. That means it’s vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, so I’m not keeping anything important or sensitive on it.

The ridiculously short useful lives of today’s smartphones is the primary reason why I’ve avoided owning one. Apple typically provides security and other updates to its phones for five years, Google for only three. That’s not enough for someone like me who wants to minimize waste and environmental impacts.

On the face of it, because of its five-year commitment to updates, Apple would seem like the most sustainable option for people who like to keep their smartphones a long time. But there are a growing number of options for extending the life of Android phones, such as the Lineage OS (a fork of Android that can be applied to more than 170 models of Android phones to keep them useable and secure for a few more years) and postmarketOS, which installs a very lightweight version of Linux on Android phones with the aim of keeping them going for as long as I’ve kept my Nokia: 10 years. Don’t get too excited: this project is still in its early stages and none of the phones running postmarket can make or receive calls yet. But I’ve got my eye on it and a few other efforts, including Ubuntu Touch (which currently works on three models of Android phones) and puri.sm’s Librem Phone, which if it succeeds in launching will be a privacy-oriented smart phone designed from the ground up to run Linux. I already use Linux as a life-extender for old laptops, so having it on a phone would be swell (yes, I know the Android operating system itself is built on Linux).

The most sustainable phone currently on the market is the Fairphone, which is backordered and only officially available in Europe for now. Fairphone runs Android 6 but also has its own open-source operating system to keep its phones secure and updated well past the typical three years you’d get with standard Android. I’m jealous.

When you change the operating system on an Android phone, what you gain in sustainability and privacy you lose in convenience: it’s a fair amount of work to set up these other systems on your phone and you may not be able to run your favorite apps.

For now, if you don’t want to support planned obsolescence, it’s slim pickings. I have converted my Android phone to LineageOS to see how that works and to give it a few extra years of security updates. But I plan to stick with the Nokia as my main phone until some of the alternative operating systems and phones are ready for prime time. I may not be able to keep my next smartphone running for 10 years, but I’d settle for 7 or 8.

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