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End of Support for Fairphone 1: Some Unanswered Questions

I previously followed the goings-on at Fairphone a lot more closely than I have done recently, so after having mentioned the obsolescence risks of the first model in an earlier article, it was interesting to discover a Fairphone blog post explaining why the company will no longer support the Fairphone 1. Some of the reasons given are understandable: they went to market with an existing design, focusing instead on minimising the use of conflict minerals; as a result various parts are no longer manufactured or available; the manufacturer they used even stopped producing phones altogether!

A mention of batteries is made in the article, and in community reaction to the announcement, a lot of concern has been expressed about how long the batteries will be good for, whether any kind of replacements might be found, and so on. With today’s bewildering proliferation of batteries of different shapes and sizes, often sealed into devices for guaranteed obsolescence, we are surely storing up a great deal of trouble for the future in this realm. But that is a topic for another time.

In the context of my previous articles about Fairphone, however, what is arguably more interesting is why this recent article fails to properly address the issues of software longevity and support. My first reaction to the Fairphone initiative was caution: it was not at all clear that the company had full control over the software stack, at least within the usual level of expectations. Subsequent information confirmed my suspicions: critical software components were being made available only as proprietary software by MediaTek.

To be fair to Fairphone, the company did acknowledge its shortcomings and promise to do better for Fairphone 2, although I decided to withhold judgement on that particular matter. And for the Fairphone 1, some arrangements were apparently made to secure access to certain software components that had been off-limits. But as I noted in an article on the topic, despite the rather emphatic assurances (“Fairphone has control over the Fairphone 1 source code”), the announcement perhaps raised more questions than it gave answers.

Now, it would seem, we do not get our questions answered as such, but we appear to learn a few things nevertheless. As some people noted in the discussion of the most recent announcement – that of discontinuing support for the device altogether – ceasing the sale of parts and accessories is one thing, but what does that have to do with the software? The only mention of software with any kind of detail in the entire discussion appears to be this:

This is a question of copyright. All the stuff that we would be allowed to publish is pretty boring because it is out there already. The juicy parts are proprietary to Mediatek. There are some Fairphone related changes to open source parts. But they are really really minor…

So what do we learn? That “control over the Fairphone 1 source code” is, in reality, the stuff that is Free Software already, plus various Android customisations done by their software vendor, plus some kind of licence for the real-time operating system deployed on the device. But the MediaTek elephant in the room kept on standing there and everyone agreed not to mention it again.

Naturally, I am far from alone in having noticed the apparent discrepancy between the assurances given and the capabilities Fairphone appeared to have. One can now revisit “the possibility of replacing the Android software by alternative operating systems” mentioned in the earlier, more optimistic announcement and wonder whether this was ever truly realistic, whether it might have ended up being dependent on reverse-engineering efforts or MediaTek suddenly having an episode of uncharacteristic generosity.

I guess that “cooperation from license holders and our own resources” said it all. Although the former thing sounds like the pipedream it always seemed to be, the latter is understandable given the stated need for the company to focus on newer products and keep them funded. We might conclude from this statement that the licensing arrangements for various essential components involved continuing payments that were a burdensome diversion of company resources towards an increasingly unsupportable old product.

If anything this demonstrates why Free Software licensing will always be superior to contractual arrangements around proprietary software that only function as long as everyone feels that the arrangement is lucrative enough. With Free Software, the community could take over the maintenance in as seamless a transition as possible, but in this case they are instead presumably left “high and dry” and in need of a persuasive and perpetually-generous “rich uncle” character to do the necessary deals. It is obvious which one of these options makes more sense. (I have experienced technology communities where people liked to hope for the latter, and it is entertaining only for a short while.)

It is possible that Fairphone 2 provides a platform that is more robust in the face of sourcing and manufacturing challenges, and that there may be a supported software variant that will ultimately be completely Free Software. But with “binary blobs” still apparently required by Fairphone 2, people are right to be concerned that as new products are considered, the company’s next move might not be the necessary step in the right direction that maintains the flexibility that modularity should be bringing whilst remedying the continuing difficulties that the software seems to be causing.

With other parties now making loud noises about phones that run Free Software, promising big things that will eventually need to be delivered to be believed, maybe it would not be out of place to suggest that instead of “big bang” funding campaigns for entirely new one-off products, these initiatives start to work together. Maybe someone could develop a “compute module” for the Fairphone 2 modular architecture, if it lends itself to that. If not, maybe people might consider working towards something that would allow everyone to deliver the things they do best. Otherwise, I fear that we will keep seeing the same mistakes occur over and over again.

Three-and-a-half years’ support is not very encouraging for a phone that should promote sustainability, and the software inputs to this unfortunate situation were clear to me as an outsider over four years ago. That cannot be changed now, and so I just hope Fairphone has learned enough from this and from all the other things that have happened since, so that they may make better decisions in the future and make phones that truly are, as they claim themselves, “built to last”.

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