Ideas love company, and there comes a point in developing policy recommendations when a discussion with experts will turn good proposals into excellent ones. NGI Forward is exploring ways to extend the useful life of smartphones to reduce their environmental impact and last week we held a roundtable discussion on extending smartphone lifetimes. This is a complex issue with lots of moving parts, which is why we invited experts in a range of fields. We were joined by an impressive array of experts in repair, cybersecurity, software development, sustainability and European policy. Representatives of device makers, mobile networks, security analysts, advocacy groups and the European Commission pulled our suggestions apart and helped us put them back together.
Our focus on smartphones came from our work last year on the environmental impact of the internet as a whole, which culminated in our report: Internet of Waste. The internet and its underlying infrastructure use a significant portion of earth’s resources, consuming 5-9 per cent of global energy supply and creating around 2 per cent of global emissions. And the little black rectangles we carry around in our pockets and bags? They’re some of the biggest contributors. Europeans replace their smartphone on average every two years, and 72 per cent of their lifetime emissions are created before they hit the shelves. As a result, extending the average lifespan of smartphones from two to four years would reduce emissions by 44 per cent. More than half of Europeans expect their smartphone to last for four or more years, so it’s clear there is a market for devices that last longer.
We’d like to see smartphone lifetimes extended to five years by 2030 and our roundtable discussion focused on two areas that could help to contribute.
Short-lived software support
The software on a device needs to be updated regularly to keep it secure and running smoothly. When software updates stop, a device can become unreliable or vulnerable to data breaches. As a result, the lifetime of smartphones can be artificially shortened if a manufacturer stops providing updates before the hardware breaks. Despite the importance of software updates, most smartphones receive them for only two or three years. A 2020 Eurobarometer survey found that 30 per cent of users replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device, so the influence on device lifetime is clear.
In our roundtable discussion, we suggested that smartphone makers should be required to provide at least seven years’ software update support. We thought that setting an ambitious target would push manufacturers to think differently about the way they provide software updates, and also drastically reduce the likelihood of artificially shortening device lifetimes. We also suggested that device makers allow users to install alternative operating systems, preferably open source ones, at the end of official support. This would allow the open-source community to create software that runs easily on older devices and receives regular updates indefinitely.
Davide Polverini of the European Commission described the work going into developing legislation for extending smartphone lifetimes, which focuses on the Ecodesign Directive. The Commission is developing vertical regulations that will apply to smartphones and tablets, as well as reviewing the Directive itself to explore how it can be adapted to cover electronics and internet technology. Ugo Vallauri from the Restart Project and Right to Repair Europe pushed for the Commission to be ambitious and agreed that software updates should be provided for far longer than they are currently. Ugo also explained that the practice of serialisation, where manufacturers prevent repair by tying specific parts to a device’s software, is becoming more common.
Our other experts were broadly in support of extending software update periods, especially since analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute shows that the cost of extending updates from two to five years is around €2 per device. However, participants raised concerns that the cost would be greater for smaller device manufacturers, which could further concentrate the market in the larger manufacturers. Device makers are not the only ones that would be affected, since several chips within smartphones need their own software. Any legislation should take this complexity into account, especially in tackling the dominance of Apple and Google, which together control the vast majority of smartphone software. We also discussed the possibility that manufacturers would create a loophole by providing a basic operating system which would be cheap to support for several years, and offer an alternative with more features that could be abandoned sooner.
We discussed the importance of updates being maintained for each component of the device, including those made by other companies, and whether it is possible to separate software and security updates (we decided possibly not). Our experts emphasised the importance of processes being as easy as possible, and the likelihood that users will be reluctant to start over with a new operating system when theirs is no longer supported. We also heard about the idea of code escrows, in which software is released if a company ceases to exist.
Making repair information public
Our second proposal is for manufacturers to publish repair manuals, device schematics and diagnostic tools so that anyone can use them. Pre-pandemic growth in repair cafes and parties demonstrates that consumers are keen to repair their gadgets and keep them going for longer. Despite this popularity, it remains difficult for end users to conduct their own smartphone repairs, so making repair information public could have a significant impact. The information would also be invaluable for research, since the repairability of products could be compared without having to tear each model apart. The French Repairability Index has also demonstrated the possibility of public availability, after Samsung published repair manuals for several of its devices online.
This is different from the Commission’s current approach for products such as electronic displays, which requires only that approved repair professionals can access this information. For TVs and other screens, repairers must either apply to be added to a national register (though no Member State has implemented one to date) or be approved by the manufacturer, which can implement any arduous contract requirements it so desires. Manufacturers can take five working days to approve a repairer and another working day to provide manuals for a specific model. We think these hurdles are likely to push more people to replace their smartphones rather than repairing them – when these devices are so important to our daily lives, each day they’re away for repair creates a serious disincentive.
Our experts debated the risks of this information being available to people that might use it to take advantage of security vulnerabilities. For several of our participants, Samsung’s recent publication of repair manuals for the French repairability index demonstrates that the right incentives can override worries about the information being misused. We also explored how likely consumers are to conduct repairs, what risks of injury they might face, and whether the availability and quality of spare parts was a greater concern. In the end, it appeared to be a chicken-and-egg issue. We can’t know if consumers will take matters into their own hands because the opportunity does not currently exist, and whatever downsides can clearly be overcome if the incentives are in the right place.
We are incredibly grateful to all our roundtable participants, who created a lively discussion and really got stuck in. Next, I’ll be incorporating their insights into a policy briefing aimed at the European Commission, to lay out the proposals and their potential impact. We’ll publish it on our website in the next few weeks, but feel free to contact me if you’d like to receive a copy of the final briefing.