Librem 5 Longevity: Solving The Problem of Disposable Technology, Next TGP

Kyle Rankin

Chief Security Officer
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Librem Social
Librem 5 Longevity: Solving The Problem of Disposable Technology, Next TGP

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I’ve been using GNU/Linux (“Linux”) as my desktop OS for over twenty years now. Throughout all of that time, one thing that I’ve loved about Linux on the desktop is how it can take a so-called “slow” and “old” computer and can breathe new life into it. Back when Installfests were a thing (events where people would bring computers to Linux Users’ Groups and get help installing Linux on them) often people would bring in second-hand computers, sometimes found in the trash or given away by companies after they were deemed too slow to run Windows. After Linux was installed they performed like they were new and the user now had a computer they could use for years to come. There were even programs that would refurbish second-hand computers, put Linux on them and provide them to schools who wouldn’t have computers otherwise. However bloated some people might think Linux is today compared to the “good old days” this effect still holds true–take a machine that’s too slow to run something else, and put Linux on it, and it’s like a new computer.

Linux’s low resource needs compared to everything else not only meant resurrecting computers that would otherwise end up in a landfill, it also meant if you were fortunate enough that you could afford a new computer, you could expect many more years of service out of the hardware, with OS updates that either improved performance (as hardware support improved) or at least maintained the existing performance. Many large companies assume their computers will last around 2-3 years before they need to be replaced but in my experience I get at least twice that longevity with Linux on the desktop.

My personal laptop is a first generation Librem 13 I bought in 2015 (I participated in the original crowdfunding campaign long before I worked here). I run Qubes on it and even after four years I don’t feel any need for a new laptop yet–it still works as well as it did when I bought it. Before that I had a Thinkpad X200s I bought brand new and had used for about six years before it started to show its age. Even now my wife uses that X200s as a secondary computer for writing.

The Problem of Disposable Technology

I bring all this up because we are living in an age where everything from clothing to furniture to technology is cheap and disposable. The assumption is that nothing lasts, so one might as well buy the cheapest thing and throw it away when it inevitably breaks. Nowhere is this more true than the phone market.

Cellular Providers and the Upgrade Treadmill

The phone market today is built upon perverse incentives that treat phones as a disposable commodity. Cellular providers want to lock customers into multi-year contracts and so they offer new phones at a heavy discount (sometimes even free) in exchange for renewing a contract. Many of these phones are also locked to the provider and you must stay with them for a certain amount of time before they will unlock them and allow you to switch to a competitor. Also, leaving for a competitor would mean paying some of that cost back to your provider so you have a strong incentive to stay. When your contract is about to expire, you get promotions to upgrade to a new phone in exchange for renewing the contract for a few years. As a result, today the average life cycle of a smartphone is two years.

Smartphone Companies and Planned Obsolescence

Of course, smartphone companies also benefit from this two-year cycle and release new phones each year so that regardless of when a customer’s contract is up, there’s a new phone to entice them. As a result, modern smartphones are designed to be obsolete in a few years with soldered-on components that are difficult if not impossible for users to service themselves. For instance, it’s rare to find a phone with microSD slots any more. Instead the user is given a few on-board storage options that encourage them to spend more to get the maximum storage. After all, OSes, apps, and files grow over time and take more resources; and if you run out of space your only choice with on-board storage is deleting files or apps, or buying a new phone. User-replaceable batteries are even rarer and as they hold less of a charge over time, eventually their capacity gets so low you have to pay a specialist to replace it for you, or else buy a new phone. When you combine the hardware obsolescence with a fragmented Android market where OS updates can be hard to come by (even in the best case you are only guaranteed OS updates for three years), every incentive tells you that your phone should be replaced every few years.

The Environmental Impact

Designing smartphones to be disposable on a two-year cycle has led to a big environmental problem. As this Fast Company article states:

Smartphones are particularly insidious for a few reasons. With a two-year average life cycle, they’re more or less disposable. The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.

There are many e-waste efforts in place that encourage people to recycle their electronics including their phones. In a number of places it’s even against the law to throw away your phone, yet the same Fast Company article quotes a researcher in saying that “based on our research and other sources, currently less than 1% of smartphones are being recycled.”

Librem 5 Longevity

We’ve discussed many aspects of the Librem 5 ever since it was announced and our Breaking Ground post does a great job of explaining why it’s so special and how that factors into the price:

First of all, the design of the Librem 5 is unique in many ways. Most importantly the hardware is designed from the ground up by us and for us. The Librem 5 is a complete custom design, not based on any reference design, specifically designed with all the goals we all want to achieve open, safe, secure, respecting your privacy and digital rights. This rules out existing mobile phone reference designs, like from MTK, Qualcomm and the others. When we first approached hardware manufacturers almost two years ago with this project most of them instantly said “No, sorry, impossible, we can not help you.”. Others warned us, that it could never work, that it was too complicated, “the industry does not do that” and so forth.

And yet here we are, later than we wanted, but we are actually shipping first hardware! It is possible but it comes at a price.

Yet one thing we haven’t discussed much up to this point is how we have factored longevity into the design.

Android is the New Windows

It’s always interesting to hear people compare the Librem 5 to existing Android smartphones as though a spec-to-spec comparison gives any more indication of how PureOS performs on a Librem 5 than how Linux performs on Windows hardware. The unspoken assumption underneath that comparison is based on the reality that as Android devices age and the OS updates, the combination of pre-installed apps you can’t remove, and overall OS bloat seeps in and the device gets slower–much like Windows computers. When you live in that world, having a Windows computer or an Android phone with the most resources matters. The Librem 5 doesn’t live in that world.

An OS That Gets Faster with Age

We are in the early stages of PureOS on the Librem 5. While the OS already performs well on the hardware, we’ve only barely tapped into performance optimizations on the platform. Like with Linux on regular computers, as time progresses, the hardware gets better support, and the OS gets more optimizations. The Librem 5 is one of those rare devices that will see performance improve as the OS and applications update. A Librem 5 a year from now will perform better than one today, and two years from now when you’d normally be planning to throw your smartphone into a landfill, that same Librem 5 will likely perform even better than the year before.

Beyond that, we have committed to providing PureOS updates for the life of the device. As we say in the Librem 5 product page:

When you purchase a Librem 5, you can be confident that we will continue to provide security updates, privacy improvements, bug fixes, and new features… for the lifetime of your device, without compromising performance. Your Librem will stay secure and responsive for years to come. Like a good wine, it will probably get better over time, not worse.

User-Replaceable Hardware

Even though PureOS may improve over time, we know that batteries don’t. Eventually the Librem 5 battery will go through its normal use cycle and need to be replaced. Unlike many other smartphones though, that won’t mean throwing the whole device away or even hiring an expert. Librem 5 is designed so you can replace it yourself.

While the on-board storage on the Librem 5 should be more than enough to store the OS and applications for years to come, you may take a lot of photos, videos, or may just want keep your music collection with you at all times. This is why we include a microSD slot in the Librem 5. Storage densities in those devices seem to climb just about every year so you should have plenty of disk space on a Librem 5.

Another reason people update their smartphones is to keep up with the latest generation of cellular networks. As networks moved from 3G to 4G, if you wanted better performance, the only option was a new phone. The Librem 5 features a user-replaceable 4G modem so you can swap between US and EU modems to get the best performance when you travel. While currently 5G networks are still being deployed around the world, and no 5G modems are yet available for the Librem 5, if a 5G modem does becomes available for the Librem 5, you’ll be able to upgrade it yourself without having to buy a new phone. [Edit: It turns out the details behind this are more complicated than I first thought–due to antennas tuned to particular frequencies, a 5G modem inside a Librem 5 would likely not be able to access the new 5G frequencies].

A Mobile Platform for General-Purpose Computing

PureOS on the Librem 5 is designed to be convergent. This means that the same applications that are developed for the Librem 5 will run on PureOS on a Librem laptop. It also means that when you connect the Librem 5 to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, those same applications will expand to their full desktop form factor. I personally am looking forward to connecting my Librem 5 to a laptop-style dock as the ultimate travel computer.

The beauty of this convergent approach is that the Librem 5 becomes a true mobile platform. The most personal of your personal computers will let you run your applications with your data whether as a phone in your hand on its touchscreen, as a travel laptop connected to a dock, or as a desktop computer connected to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Because the applications have been designed for the platform, you get the same performance regardless of the size of your screen.

Made to Last

When you look at the longevity designed into the Librem 5, there’s just no comparison with existing disposable smartphones on the market with a 3-year expiration date. Whether it’s a $1100 flagship phone, a $500 unlocked mid-range phone, or a free low-end smartphone that’s subsidized by selling your data, the sticker price only tells part of the story. Whether it’s OS and app updates that slow down your phone, security updates that stop after a few years, batteries that fail, networks that upgrade, or storage that fills up, you’ll be paying that same price in a few years, and a few years after that. You don’t own a modern smartphone, you rent it.

The Librem 5 is part of a long-term vision to change the exploitative and toxic tech world we all live in. The world needs a mobile computer that doesn’t spy on you, protects your privacy, lets you own your hardware and your data, gives you the freedom to use it however you wish, and doesn’t try to lock you in or force you to upgrade every few years. With the Librem 5 we have built a mobile platform that’s made to last.

Kyle Rankin