Google’s Project Ara Is Not the Only Modular Phone to Watch

Fairphone 2 modular smartphone


Project Ara from Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) isn’t the only modular smartphone on the horizon. A Dutch startup called Fairphone has released a first look at the next generation of its device. While Fairphone works differently from Project Ara — you’ll have to take the phone apart to replace and upgrade its modules instead of attaching them to the skeleton with magnets — it offers an interesting look at how modularity could bring you your perfect smartphone, especially if your ideal smartphone is one that lessens your social and environmental impact.

According to The Next Web’s Owen Williams, the phone marks the first time that the company has designed an entire smartphone itself. The original Fairphone was based on a reference design purchased from a factory, but used components sourced specifically to reduce the “conflict minerals” used to build the device. Conflict minerals are those that are extracted in areas or conditions where human rights abuses are rampant, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Almost every electronic device you use daily incorporates copper, gold, tin, tungsten, and other elements mined in these areas, and that has real and devastating effects on large numbers of people.

The reference design limited Fairphone’s ability to reach its ambition of building a completely “fair” smartphone, as some of the components and the elements in them were already chosen by the factory. When Fairphone launched its first crowdfunding campaign to fund the original phone in 2013, 10,186 people each gave €325, or about $365, for a device that didn’t exist yet. The company has sold more than 60,000 units of the first Fairphone since then, and has now built a prototype of its next-generation device, which gets closer to its goal of an ethically built smartphone. The Fairphone 2 will be available in Europe this fall for €525, or about $590. The device will be available for pre-order over the summer, and you can sign up to be notified about the phone’s release.

Williams visited Fairphone’s Amsterdam headquarters to see the device, which was built in a little over a year. The smartphone features all of the specifications you’d expect from a modern smartphone; it runs Android 5.0, has a full HD 5-inch display, supports 4G LTE, and packs 2GB of RAM. It also features 0.7mm Gorilla Glass 3, which is the thickest available without a custom order, has an 8MP rear-facing camera, a Snapdragon 801 processor dual SIM card slots, a microSD card slot, and an expansion port to accommodate further sensors in the future. But the difference between a standard smartphone and the Fairphone 2? Everything inside it is modular, and designed to be easily swapped by the user.

The outside case of the phone is rubberized and slips off the body for easy access to the phone’s internal components. The phone is built to be more durable than a traditional smartphone, and much easier (and cheaper) to fix if something breaks. A broken screen, for instance, can be easily removed and replaced with the flick of two clips. Once you pop the screen off, you can access most of the Fairphone 2’s components without ribbons or other pieces that complicate dismantling.

You can easily replace the CPU, the camera, the microphone, and many other parts by ordering a new one from Fairphone, removing a few screws, and swapping the new module in. The back of the phone is illustrated to help users identify and replace parts in as straightforward a process as possible. That’s meant to encourage users to become familiar with their devices and to take advantage of the opportunity to make repairs and upgrades themselves. Fairphone says that the modularity of the phone encourages users “to have a deeper relationship with their phones” by enabling them to “take more responsibility for keeping them in working condition.”

Fairphone chief executive Bas van Abel told Williams that the development process had focused on improving the longevity of the phone as a a way to reduce its toll on people and on the environment as Fairphone completes the slow and complex task of replacing more of the conflict minerals inside the device. The modularity and the easy repairs and upgrades it enables helps the owner of a phone become more invested in the device, which, in turn, makes it less likely that he or she will just replace the phone if it breaks.

Fairphone is also looking toward software as a way to achieve longevity, and is preparing to release the source code of its operating system to the community, for anyone to review, modify, or improve. The company is also in discussions with OS vendors to develop alternative operating systems optimized for the Fairphone 2, in order to give users a choice of operating systems instead of limiting them to one that the manufacturer has pre-selected. By giving developers access to its development environment, Fairphone will enable them to create ROMs with custom replacement images of Android and other operating systems to lower the threshold of maintenance on software.

Williams notes that Fairphone has improved the social impact of its smartphone by sourcing conflict-free tin and tantalum from mines in the Congo for the Fairphone 2. It also has plans in place to source conflict-free gold and tungsten in the future. Many of the materials for the Fairphone 2 still come from conflict mines, but the company says that it can’t change the industry overnight and is pushing factories and suppliers where it can. It’s working to expand transparency throughout the supply chain, and plans to name the factories that produce specific parts, to surface sustainability reports from manufacturers, and to enable the traceability of materials in the phone. 

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