Eco-friendly Fairphone emphasises being a good citizen over being a good phone

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Travelling in Europe recently I impulsively offered a friend a swap of my Samsung Galaxy S4 for her Fairphone. This was largely motivated by the fact that my friend had not managed to move from her existing iPhone 3S to the Fairphone for a variety of reasons and I was curious to know why. She had initially bought the phone for its emphasis on socially responsible manufacture but this had not ended up being sufficient cause to actually use the phone.

I liked my Samsung S4 a lot. It is a fully functional computing device in addition to being a good phone. The motivation in giving it up was that I was intrigued by the idea behind the Fairphone and was curious as to whether it could be a serious contender next to an Apple or Samsung. I had previously written about this subject, suggesting that it was a potential challenger but it is somewhat easy to write about things in the abstract when you haven’t actually used the device itself.

The Fairphone is an “ethical” phone is the sense that materials for its manufacture are obtained from sources that don’t contribute to the arms trade, it emphasises reuse rather than disposability and establishes fair pricing for people involved in its production.

The ideological aims of Fairphone are reasonable in themselves. It serves to bring focus on the issues of smartphone manufacture and shows that in theory it is possible to build a phone whilst preserving these aims. However, the validity of this point is somewhat undermined when the product that is being produced is nowhere near as good as similarly priced phones.

Paying a premium for a product that is the equivalent in quality terms may be acceptable to the conscientious consumer. Organic food and fair trade coffee may be more expensive than their counterparts but they are the same or better in terms of quality. The Fairphone is not in this category however. The priority of its designers was to literally create a fair phone, unfortunately it was at the cost of having a usable phone.

To be fair to Fairphone, the challenges of providing equivalent functionality to a phone created by any of the major companies are probably insurmountable. Even though they managed to assemble components and use a version of Android that worked with those components, the final outcome was very basic. It is a 3G phone with a slow processor that lacks features like NFC and LTE Bluetooth. It is heavy and aesthetically uninteresting in its design. The phone’s dual sim support of the phone is useful if you use local sims when you travel, something that may be more common in Europe, the principle market of the Fairphone.

Because the phone has had a very small production run (25,000 phones so far), it is very unlikely that any companies making accessories or devices that interact with smartphones would bother with supporting the Fairphone.

What was probably the real failure of the phone was not creating one that could be simply upgraded to the latest version of Android or a customised version of Android. Again due to the very small community around the phone, there doesn’t seem to be any active development around it and even Fairphone itself has found it challenging to upgrade or fix bugs (of which there are a few).

For those customers who are concerned with issues of ideological integrity of their mobile phones, there are probably more direct means of raising awareness of these issues with the manufacturers that create most of the world’s phones. From a person perspective, buying a second hand functional phone like an iPhone or Samsung would have more of an ecological impact than buying a new, semi-functional phone like the Fairphone.

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