Modular upgrades promise to extend phone lifetimes and cut waste
The first upgradeable smartphone modules were announced today, a move that could save consumers money, reduce waste and shake up the business models of tech giants Apple and Samsung.
Fairphone’s 70,000 customers will be able to slot upgraded camera modules into their phones after they go on sale in September. Modular upgrades promise to keep phones up-to-date, extending their life and reducing waste, green groups say.
EEB waste policy expert Stephane Arditi said: “Well done Fairphone for pioneering modular upgrades and getting us a step closer to phones that last a lifetime. The big question now is whether the firm’s modularity will take a bite out of the rotten mainstream business models, or whether Apple, Samsung and others will join the revolution.
“We are not saying modularity is the cure for the problems of ewaste, conflict minerals and child labour. But done right, it should extend phone use, lower demand and deliver real pain relief.”
Pictures and video are now core functions of smartphones. While camera units rarely break, a recent technological advance is set to quickly make old units unattractive. Electronic waste is the world’s fastest growing waste type.
Modularity has long existed in home computers and cars. But critics argued that modular phones would be too expensive, heavy, large and fragile to be commercially viable.
Tech giants, including Apple, are accused of keeping phone lifespans short to maintain high sales and profits. Apple has become the largest company by market cap and makes most of its money from phones. The average phone cycle is just 18 months. Irreversible glues and other hurdles are make repair more and more difficult. The European Commission is considering new laws (see page 9) to improve product design, including upgradeability, and has opened a probe into planned obsolescence.