Fairphone ends support for first repairable-by-design smartphone

Fairphone, the European mobile phone maker and social enterprise that has made it its mission is to build and sell fairer smartphone hardware, has announced it is ending support for its first handset, the Fairphone 1 (spotted earlier by The Register).

Blogging about the decision last week, founder Bas van Abel described it as “bittersweet”. “Over time, the possibilities for continuing to support the Fairphone 1 have steadily decreased,” he wrote. “It is now clear that we can’t keep spending resources on finding new options and loopholes without negatively impacting our company’s future.”

Fairphone has always described device longevity as one of its “primary goals”. And in June 2016 it was still telling owners of the Fairphone 1 that an Android KitKat upgrade was “coming soon”. However that confidence turned out to be misplaced.

“Practically speaking, this means that we will no longer sell spare parts for the Fairphone 1, and have stopped developing the software upgrade to Android 4.4,” wrote van Abel last week, confirming that both hardware and software support is being ended for the handset.

A small first production batch of the Fairphone 1 was sold in late 2013, with a second batch released in May 2014. A final batch was sold in February 2015. So owners of the device have only had between two and 3.5 years’ support.

“We wanted to see it succeed for as long as possible,” said van Abel, in the blog post. “For ourselves, but more so for the community of pioneers who bought this phone and provided the financial springboard to start our company. However, after supporting the Fairphone 1 for three and a half years and the Fairphone 1U for nearly two and a half years, we’ve simply reached the point where it is no longer possible to keep supporting our first phone.”

The founding idea behind Fairphone was to create a company that sold fairer and more sustainable electronics by working, for example, for better pay and conditions for assembly workers; by sourcing conflict-free minerals for use in the devices; and by, at the consumer end of things, encouraging repairability and longevity rather than the typical tech industry six month+ upgrade cycle.

However the relatively brief support lifeline for its first product has clearly angered some in its community, with expressions of disappointment and anger on display in the comments on van Abel’s post.

“I am very disappointed that you do not support Fairphone 1 anymore,” writes one. “This clearly conflict with the information you gave when I bought the Phone. In this aspect I do not see any difference with the bad practices of other phone manufacturers. My Fairphone 1 is still in good shape and I will use it as long as possible. When my Fairphone stops functioning I wll definately not buy another Fairphone anymore.:-(”

van Abel explains the decision to end support as a consequence of Fairphone being unable to source spare parts for the handset after suppliers shifted their business and retired parts (itself a consequence of the fast pace of technological change in the device industry) — although his blog does not specifically discuss why Fairphone is also ending software support.

We’ve reached out to the company with questions and will update this post with any response.

The likely answer is it is simply does not have the financial resources to sustain software support and justify the expense of doing so for a small and shrinking user base for its first device (the company says it sold a total of around 60,000 Fairphone 1 devices).

It has previously blogged that it needs more capital to support the company, generally — and that phone sales alone aren’t enough. An expensive and unending support bill would obviously have added further strain.

It has also previously discussed the challenges of providing ongoing software support for the Fairphone 1 — but it’s perhaps unfortunate for a company that has placed a big emphasis on transparency to not have not been more transparent with its users on its reasons for ending software support.

Update: On its decision to end software support, a spokesman told us: “Similar to the spare parts, software updates are issued by chipset manufacturers and simply not supplied anymore after a while. While we can write those in principle ourselves, for a small company like Fairphone it is very difficult and costly to develop these, which is why we cannot do it for Fairphone 1.”

“There is very little set up by the industry for sustainable production in its current state and we are working to change that,” he added.

Fairphone launched a second generation smartphone at the end of 2015, using a custom hardware design to aim for longevity via modular repairability. The Fairphone 2‘s design lets owners easily disassemble, remove and replace defunct parts (with the exception of the CPU) so they can keep using the device for longer.

Earlier this year van Abel told us its hope for the second-gen device is that owners will be able to use it for as long as five years.

Though that hope clearly rests on it being able to secure enough capital to sustain its promises to users by, for example, stockpiling enough spare parts to avoid the  Fairphone 1’s fate of a ‘repairable’ device becoming — nonetheless — unrepairable owing to the pace of industry change.

“Having ownership over the phone’s design comes with a number of major advantages,” he wrote last week of the Fairphone 2. “For one, it allows us focus more on expanding the lifespan of our devices through repairability and spare parts. While components reaching end-of-life will always be an industry reality, the modular design will allow us to tweak individual modules to accommodate new parts. In addition, owning the design gives us direct access to our suppliers and a better overview of what’s happening in our supply chain.”

“We’ve learned very valuable lessons from our Fairphone 1 spare parts challenges that will help shape our approach going forward,” he added. “One concrete step is generating more working capital to be able to buy spare parts upfront, so we can continue to have spare parts available for customers in the coming years. Another step is to improve our planning and estimates to ensure our supply of Fairphone 2 spare parts meets the demand.”

This article was updated with comment from Fairphone