april 30th 2015 |

Fairphone: The first year

It has been a over a year since the first Fairphones were delivered to their customers. This is a good time to look back on the project and see how good the phone is, but more important, to see which project goals have been achieved and which goals could use more attention.

Intro to the Fairphone project

The Fairphone project was initiated to start a conversation about opening up the supply chain and making consumers more aware about the social and environmental impact of the electronics they buy. A phone is chosen for the project, because it is used by nearly everyone and therefore provides an excellent medium to start a serious discussion about the impact our electronics have on our environment and the people producing the phone. As far as I understand the project was never to create a hunderd procent fair phone. Not only would that be impossible to achieve in only one try, more importantly, the benefits are greater if the entire industry becomes aware of its social and environmental impact and improves this.

Fairphone four part render

Fairphone four part render

The following goals are set for the Fairphone project (see the Fairphone factsheet):

  • Mining: Focus on tin and tantalum and create a conflict-free supply chain for the minerals and use them in the Fairphone
  • Design: Make sure the phone is repairable, so it will be usable for a long time, make sure the software of the phone is open, in a way that people can develop and install the software they choose, choose the design in a way that the phone can also be used in a second life in other countries
  • Manufactoring: Produce the phone in a factory with fair conditions for the workers
  • Lifecycle: Be aware of use, reuse and recycleability of the phone
  • Social entrepeneurship: Be transparent about pricing and production

Ofcourse, the project has to maintain a low footprint (e.g. for distribution).

Fairphone tantalum resource

Fairphone tantalum resource

The way to production

For me, I decided to dive into the project in june 2013. It wasn’t clear if the project would start, but there were already so many subscription that I, like the people that already ordered, decided to pay the amount of €325 and wait for the phone that, at that time, was scheduled for october 2013.

Fairphone parts

Fairphone parts

Reason for me to order the phone was the focus on non-conflict materials for the phone, a better working environment for the workers, repairability of the phone and openness of the software on the phone.

After the payment, the project soon announced that production would start, because the necessary 5000 orders were made (the first production batch would be 20000 phones it would seem).

In the next months, updates were given about the production process, the software that would standard be installed on the phone, and an update about the release date. Delivery was delayed until december, mainly due to issues with certification (FCC I believe) and an unnamed supplier that could not deliver the goods on the agreed date. The team was very open about the delay, and I was under the impression that everyone was working very hard.

I received my phone in the beginning of january 2014 (a little later than expected, which was due to delay with the case which I also ordered.

First impressions

The phone

When I received the phone, the first that i noticed was that it is quite heavy. Solid heavy I mean, so this feels good. Also the package in which the phone was distributed was small, to keep distribution costs low. Only the phone, some postcardsz and a basic manual were included. It all felt very personal.

Fairphone package

Fairphone package

On the site the specifications for the poweradapter can be found, so I checked beforehand and can use my old adapter.

The software

The phone is running on a close to vanilla Android version, version 4.2.2. Apart from a few other applications (a different launcher and the app Peace of Mind) no other software is installed. Around 1GB of room is available to install apps. The first version of the software has a few problems. The phone can be unstable and restart at random moments and the GPS can be unreliable.

I don’t use bluetooth, so I can’t comment on that. Wifi coverage is ok en phone network function are also nice. Clear sound while calling both ways (hearing and talking).

The use

I noticed that I get a lot of questions about the phone. People think the phone looks good, feels sturdy and are curious what type of phone it is. When I mention it is a Fairphone I usually get some questions about the origins of the phone and some people have heard about it. Most are interested in the project (but until now only up to the level of knowing about it, not with the intention of making it their next phone).

One of the great things about the phone is the battery life. This is a huge improvement over my old phone (Samsung Nexus S) and I don’t have to worry about getting through the day. I am a business user, so use email, calendar, contacts, evernote, dropbox, keepass (switched to 1password recently), but rarely watch Youtube and never play games on my phone.

Fairphone dual sim

Fairphone dual sim

The dual sim in the phone is great. I have a separate sim for my work and want to keep my personal number private. I have not noticed problems with battery life because of the dual sim use.

The improvements over the year

Over the year a lot has been improved for the phone. One of the most important fixes that have been made (for my use of the phone) is the unified storage solution that came with version 1.6 of the software. The stability of the phone has also increased drastically, resulting in an uptime of over 1000 hours on my phone.

Fairphone uptime screenshot

Fairphone uptime screenshot

In december 2014 version 1.8 of the software has been released, but after a partly failed release, this has been withdrawn. There were too many issues with the release. I decided to install anyway (through the recovery mode) and experienced a way better GPS functionality. Battery life seems to be a bit worse than before however, although it still is sufficient for my use to get through the day. I have not done any objective readings to confirm the decreasing in battery life however.

Fairphone (the company) responded to the failed release by starting a beta program, which I decided to participate in. This resulted in version 1.8.4 of the software, which will be released any day from now.

Besides the improvements of the phone, there also has been improvements on the site and community around the Fairphone. Biggest change for me was the start of a (new) forum. This is fairly active and is also used for feedback from the beta program.

The verdict on open software

In december 2014 the development team of Fairphone wrote a blogpost about the future of the first Fairphone in terms of software update and openness. As was the presumption until then (fed by discussions on XDA developers), the choice for MediaTek as chipset provider proved to be a poor one from the point of openness. There will probably be no software updates beyond Android 4.2.2 and also no possibility to install Firefox OS or other alternatives. The Fairphone will continue get software updates, so to maintain a secure phone. The extent to which this is possible will have to turn out in the future.

The next generation

The Fairphone team has confirmed that a next generation Fairphone will be produced. This has been made possible by the large group of customers of Fairphone #1 and the fact that a lot people are interested in a follow-up.

Evaluation of the goals

After this first year of use, updates, evaluation and enthousiasm on the Fairphone project I think it is nice to look back at the five areas of social impact Fairphone targets at:

Fairphone working conditions

Fairphone working conditions

The future

Looking at the goals of the project, I think that Fairphone has been quite successful. Despite the fact that many goals may have been over ambitious and hard to fulfill, a lot is accomplished. Most goals are met. Many people are very pleased with the phone itself and the values it stands for. However, being a product that can attract early adapters, the fact that no more software updates (Android version wise) are to be expected is a common complaint and one that tends to be leading in the reception of the phone.

For the new Fairphone these points are to be taken into account.

I hope that the next Fairphone can be more open, in hard- and software, without losing the focus on all that already has been accomplished. I also hope that the team can remain enough focus on the first generation, and can prove that this phone remains to be usable and secure, despite having the latest Android version. Finally I hope that other manufacturers will change their view on the production and earnings of a product resulting in more durable products. For this to work the consumer has to be more conscious of the impact the constant buying of the latest and the greatest has. I think the Fairphone project is a nice first step on that road.