In advent of a new Fairphone model arriving soon, I decided to share my experience with the Fairphone 2. I will comment on what I like and what caused problems for me and hopefully help some people decide whether the upcoming Fairphone 3 might be worth considering as a new smartphone.
I bought my Fairphone 2 in early 2016. The main reasons back then were the modular design, which allowed to replace key components for relatively low money, ethical working conditions in the production, a fair supply chain, as far as this is feasible, and a focus on long lasting software support. Especially the last point was crucial to me, since many Android phones stop to receive official software updates already after two years. In contrast to that Fairphone promised to support the Fairphone 2 for as much as five years. A real game changer in my opinion. The price of 530€ was justified in my point of view by what the phone offered and the company’s small size. After one or two years, however, I know a couple of people that considered the price too high for a phone without cutting-edge hardware specs.
Design and Hardware
When I received the phone, I was pretty happy with the overall design, which I would describe as simple and functional, and indeed it was possible to disassemble and assemble the whole phone with just basic tools. As a result, the Fairphone 2 is the first smartphone that received 10/10 points for repairability from iFixit 1, which I consider a pretty awesome achievement for a small company such as Fairphone. One design choice I appreciated especially is the build in bumper, which makes an additional case unnecessary and protected my phone very well. Over time, however, the phone seemed rather bulky compared to new smartphones coming out. The solution of Fairphone was the introduction of a slim case with new colours. While this idea seems pretty trivial it worked well for me. With the new case the phone had a slimmer shape and a fresh look, which I considered a refreshing upgrade.
During my whole time with the Fairphone 2, I experienced only minor problems with the hardware. As many owners I had an issue with some bright spots that appeared on the screen after a couple of months. The support for this issue was excellent, only after a couple of days I got an replacement screen and this actually turned out as a prime example in favor of the Fairphone’s modular concept. In a matter of minutes I could replace the screen myself and send in the broken one. The only further hardware replacement that I got was the camera update released in later 2017. Right from the beginning the Fairphone’s man camera module was one of the main points of criticisms and the upgrade allowed to replace only this single component. Just as the screen replacement the camera upgrade went pretty smooth. Fairphone did not release any further hardware upgrades except of the camera module though. As far as I know, the whole development and production process turned out rather cumbersome for the still relatively small userbase of 100.000 to 200.000, which is small compared to the big players in the market. However, I think this upgrade showed the general feasibility of hardware upgrades for smartphones and the willingness of the company to care about their user’s criticism.
One aspect I also really appreciate about Fairphone, is that ethical technology does not only include the hardware aspects of the phone, but also the software it is running. I think this aspect is often overlooked. So what does fair software even mean? For Fairphone it includes the three key principles transparency, longevity, and ownership. Meaning an open ecosystem to develop trust with their community, supporting the software for a longer period of time, and putting the user back in control of what happens on their phone and what happens to their data 2. Fairphone tries to accomplish this goals with their custom open source operating system Fairphone OS. This is essentially a customized open source Android version that comes without any Google controlled components such as their gallery app, music player but also very basic functionalities as the location service or the Google Play Store. Getting your location and installing apps are basic functionalities everyone expects from their phone, but unfortunately they are not part of the open source Android version and are controlled by Google. In practice this means you will not get these functionalities out of the box when using Fairphone OS. A workaround that many people used is to install a basic set of Google services via so-called openGapps 3. The term open is misleading here, because these are in fact closed source components from Google. While I appreciate the goal of Fairphone to offer fair software I think using Fairphone OS is still too complicated for many average users that just want their phones to work. So, I think most people still use the default Android version including Google services. On the other hand, I also understand that providing a custom open source Android version for their phone is already a big burden and I think one cannot expect them to support further operating systems such as Ubuntu OS or Sailfish OS, which I would consider as being fairer in the sense of Fairphone’s definition. Nevertheless, Fairphone also kept their promise of long term support on the software side and it was the only company that offered Android 7 for the chipset they used 4. Another first that this company achieved.
Personally, I used Fairphone OS with openGapps in the first two years and my experience with this setup was mostly positive. From time to time I had some struggles with updating the operating system or getting to work apps that relied on the proprietary Google services. I would conclude that Fairphone OS is a neat product for tech-savvy people that care about ethical software, but in my point of view it is too complicated for the average user. After around two years I discovered the microG project, which aims to reimplement the Google services and providing the same functionality without relying on Google’s infrastructure. For instance, it implements a location service that relies on the open Mozilla Location Service. That means microG provides the functionality of the Google services without any proprietary code. When I decided to switch to microG I also changed the operating system from FairphoneOS to LineageOS, which is the successor of the community project CyanogenMod and provides an open source Android version for many smartphones. I changed due to the more recent Android release offered by LineageOS and the awesome project LineageOS for microG 5, which offers a bundle that already includes microG out of the box. Hence, I got rid of reinstalling openGapps whenever updating FairphoneOS. While this setup is not officially supported by Fairphone I consider it pretty stable and easy to use in every-day life. There are even weekly over-the-air updates.
Community and Future
Apart from the Software and Hardware of the Fairphone 2, I think the Fairphone community is actually one of its most valuable aspects. In contrast to other online communities, the Fairphone Forum consists very friendly and helpful people that are open to discussions and always seek creative solutions. What I appreciate especially is the good climate that also allows tech beginners to ask for their questions. Usually there is some nice person that is willing to explain something in simple words or point to a similar issue. Whenever I needed help or wanted to discuss an issue about my Fairphone it only took a couple of hours or a few days until I had some helpful answers. Furthermore, people seems to be very open for software alternatives and I read plenty of interesting debates in the forum. I actually look through the Fairphone Forum summary every week to check whether there are some interesting discussions going on.
For the future of Fairphone I hope that the company can grow while sticking to their core values. A Fairphone 3 might be a possibility to reach a larger user base that was not willing to buy an aged Fairphone 2. In my point of view, the past years proved that Fairphone is a serious player in the mobile business that is transparent about their decisions and cares about their users. Something you will not get with many other companies. Furthermore, my Fairphone 2 was reliable companion over the last couple of years and I am pretty sure my next phone will be a Fairphone again.