Shiftphones details

Paul Boddie paul at
Fri May 10 15:06:40 UTC 2019

On Friday 10. May 2019 09.35.28 Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> Seems they were starting almost at the same time (2013/2014). As someone who
> supported fairphone 1 and fairphone 2 users, I know a lot about the good
> and bad decisions from Fairphone first hand. I don't about Shiftphone so I
> don't know. In some things they seem to have been better than Fairphone
> from the beginning for use cases I was looking for.

Thanks for the overview in your previous message. It all sounds rather similar 
to Fairphone, and it surprises me that they have not managed to attract 
broader publicity.

> I'm slightly sensitive about how you have phrased the question, though, as I
> believe any organisation has to learn and I consider Fairphone a huge
> success that has advanced the state of the art significantly.

I have noted previously that my concerns with Fairphone came about because the 
organisation largely ignored the issues of how software for phones is 
produced. I seem to remember that they even used a Windows Phone screenshot on 
the publicity images for their first product.

So this meant that they did a substantial amount of good work dealing with the 
horrific problems around the mining and sourcing of materials, presumably 
going to some quite unpleasant places and maybe even having to deal with some 
rather unpleasant people, and yet a simple e-mail conversation with any number 
of knowledgeable and even friendly people within Free Software could have 
alerted them to the sustainability issues with the software they were going to 

Of course, there is no real comparison in terms of the treatment of the 
average Free Software developer and people working in factories producing 
phones or components, let alone those who work in the mining activities that 
produce the basic materials required. But since software developers are 
increasingly treated as interchangeable commodities, people are too tempted to 
regard software procurement like a consumer transaction for a throwaway item, 
believing that the only differentiation between the people offering to do the 
work is how much money they are asking to do it.

My understanding (and recollection) is that Fairphone fell into the same 
"original design manufacturer" trap that lots of people do. Now, most vendors 
do not care about the lack of longevity of the thing that they have procured: 
they can always sell or give an unhappy customer the next thing coming out of 
the factory. But when Free Software initiatives experienced such issues, and 
when those issues were even publicised (with much embarrassment), the lessons 
were freely available for the taking.

So, because of a difference in perspective and priorities, it seems that 
Fairphone fell at the last hurdle, whereas a Free Software initiative would 
have encountered software sustainability issues at the first hurdle, giving 
them the opportunity to back up and choose a different approach. Naturally, 
one could easily criticise initiatives focusing on Free Software that they do 
not care enough about conflict minerals, which would be a fair point, even 
though some initiatives have tried to source "responsible" components.

I am actually favourable to Fairphone and their products, even though they 
might not regard me as acting in such way with what I write, but I have only 
written what I have because it is so clearly regrettable that an initiative 
that seeks to make durable, sustainable, low-impact, "fair" products managed 
to undermine its own work by neglecting a critical component of those 
products' sustainability and longevity.

Naturally, the whole mobile industry suffers from these issues, too: it is 
like the Wintel upgrade treadmill turbo-upgraded for the 21st century. As 
software practitioners, we should be looking to offer real solutions for this. 
Why shouldn't my next phone be usable, even in a modest sense, for as long as 
my current one, which is actually fifteen years old?

> But back to Shiftphones:
> Because they are around for a number of years, with a production >30.000 (as
> claimed in 2016-11) they seem to actually produce working phones.

It must be noted that getting phones made to import and sell is easy enough if 
you are willing to go with some existing design and relinquish substantial 
control over what gets produced. Scratch the surface and you will find plenty 
of companies importing minor brand phones, for instance.

The reasons why people have struggled to make open hardware phones 
(supportable by Free Software) are most likely to be those related to product-
specific design and production, where the people trying to make such phones 
are outsiders and are not part of the manufacturer ecosystem, with its 
convenient and cheap access to knowledge and technical resources, and so on. 
And getting access to the right people to solve problems is difficult given 
the low volumes and outsider status of such initiatives.

It is not even the case, or not always, that those wishing to make open phones 
have little or no prior experience with the engineering: it is just that some 
processes when extracted from a single, all-encompassing entity become costly 
in terms of time and money. And with potential customers being conditioned to 
think like simple discount shoppers, they are too easily aghast at the 
resulting price needed to cover those costs, neglecting the differentiating 
aspects of the product as they compare it unfavourably to some one-season 
wonder device from a multinational corporation.

> To the question of how friendly they are towards running your own software:
> There seem to be a light version that you can get (if you sign up for beta)
> without Google apps. And recently there is an experimental LineagesOS port
> for their 5me and 6m models with Mediatek SOCs.) So they are not much better
> than Fairphone in this regard. A little bit, because their upcoming models
> will be based on Snapdragon SOCs from Qualcomm which are traditionally more
> friendly towards Free Software drivers.

I had a look at LineageOS recently and was rather frustrated by the fact that 
a lot of the listed devices do not have current support. Although the 
LineageOS materials could be much clearer, the initiative cannot really be 
criticised for what are effectively structural issues with the Android 

> My botton line is: With Fairphone currently not having a current model on
> sale, Shiftphones has interesting offers and certainly helps to push forward
> ethical phones (environment, fairness, freedom).

I was actually surprised in my review of available phones that Fairphone 2 is 
now no longer available, although factory-refurbished ones can be obtained for 
a discount. What might have been interesting is if the modular technology had 
been popularised, shared, standardised, and so on, so that others could have 
made upgrades and continued the general availability of the product.


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