Smartphone: What about software obsolescence?

If hardware obsolescence has been on gamers’ agenda for a long time, it’s time the same thing happened to software obsolescence.

We’re talking more and more about repairability and usability around digital devices. While this aspect is very basic, and France has already dealt with this problem since 2015, with the creation of a legal framework to prevent and condemn planned obsolescence, we still often forget the software aspect … and the resulting problems. Even today, many obstacles stand in the way of those who wish to be able to update it for more than 5 years.

And not everyone is playing the game: Apple decided not to make its iOS 16 update compatible with the iPhone 7, released in 2016. However, software obsolescence is a major issue for sustainability.Uses and caused 20% of users to change the phone.

It is clear that in an oligopolistic sector where few players impose the standard, there are still many drawbacks and the phone often remains abandoned due to its inability to make it work properly.

Most of the electronics industry’s longevity efforts currently focus on the physical repair of products. The three largest smartphone manufacturers have recently started opening the door for further overhaul by users of their products. This is an essential first step to ensuring greater hardware durability. Thanks to him, devices are replenished at intervals – which is absolutely crucial when you know that 75% of a phone’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated during its production.[1].

When we talk about Android software update which accounts for 70% of operating systems according to Statista, on the other hand, the process in the hands of only a few players is very complex and many steps. Despite this, some actors show that it can be countered with investment and effort.

Software update should take into account 3 aspects:

  • First you have to fix the bug. For example: If the wifi is down, the problem should be rectified to ensure proper use of the phone.
  • It is then necessary to ensure that the security patches for the device are in place. This aspect is very important, because without guaranteeing the security of the device, players such as banks will no longer allow their applications to run on the device (personal data is considered at risk in this regard). the time).
  • The update allows you to take advantage of the latest Android features. With the update to Android 12, for example, users can take advantage of the graphical improvements brought by Google’s new approach to design: Material You.

So for an Android phone, the update (at the initiative of the manufacturer) goes through four main stages:

  1. Reliance on Android Operating Source Project (AOSP): When Google releases a new version of Android, it is made open source and accessible to manufacturers who use it to adapt it to their phones.
  2. Regarding the hardware, the electronic chip that controls the operation of the phone must be completely adapted to this new version of Android. However, chip suppliers must ensure this adaptation, and a few highly specialized players in this market do not necessarily make this task a priority.
  3. The phone should also receive various integrations called “properties”. This is particularly the case for integrating the customizations of some telecom operators (eg in relation to Voice over IP). These mergers must then go through the approval process for each operator, in their own laboratories.
  4. Google must then approve the phone’s compatibility through the certification process. This process goes through a series of technical tests (nearly 500,000), at the end of which the correctness of the offered OS version is validated, to be delivered to the users.

Finally, the phone will live and need maintenance cycles for each version of Android. To do this, players (such as Google and the chip supplier) provide security patches every month. For every new security patch, the phone must go through a 4-step process. Once Google stops providing these patches for one version of Android, the phone should upgrade to the next Android update.

On the other hand, when the chip supplier stops providing the security patch, the utopia chain no longer works. In theory, this means that software support can no longer be provided. If desired, it is now up to the manufacturer to find alternatives to allow the phone to remain compatible with new Android updates.

The open source community can then prove to be an essential ally for manufacturers who want to continue delivering updates to their customers. There are also committed players like LineageOS, which makes it possible to circumvent this issue with a more open operating system that actually lasts longer.

But these alternative efforts have not yet spread sufficiently in the industry. If digital players do not take this issue into their own hands, it is up to the public authorities to act to enforce a binding framework that goes in that direction. With France’s REEN law, DMA and attempts to regulate EU batteries, regulators are proving their impetus but they must follow through on these efforts.

[1] Source: https://librairie.ademe.fr/cadic/1866/guide-pratique-impacts-smartphone.pdf?modal=false

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