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Smartphone: what about software obsolescence?

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

There is more and more talk of repairability and second-hand digital devices. While this aspect is absolutely fundamental and France has already addressed the issue since 2015, with the establishment of a legal framework to prevent and condemn planned obsolescence, we still too often forget the software aspect and the problems that arise from it. Even today, many obstacles stand in the way of those who wish to be able to update them for more than 5 years.

And not everyone plays it: Apple has decided not to make its iOS 16 update compatible with the iPhone 7, released in 2016. However, software obsolescence is a key issue for sustainable use and has caused a change of telephone numbers of 20% of users.

It is clear that in an oligopolistic sector where few actors impose the standard, many obstacles remain and that still too often a telephone is abandoned for not knowing how to make it work properly.

Most of the longevity efforts currently undertaken by the electronics industry focus primarily on the physical repairability of products. The three largest smartphone manufacturers have also recently begun to open their doors to more repairs by users of their products. This is an essential first step to ensure a longer life for appliances. Thanks to it, the renewal of devices is spaced out, absolutely decisive when you know that 75% of a phone’s GHG emissions are generated during its production.[1].

When it comes to updating the Android software, which according to Statista represents 70% of operating systems, however, the process, in the hands of a few players, is characterized by extreme complexity and many steps. . Despite this, some actors show that it is possible to tackle it with investment and effort.

The software update should consider 3 aspects:

  • First you need to address the bugs. For example: if the wifi is not working properly, the problem needs to be corrected to ensure proper use of the phone.
  • It is therefore necessary to make sure that the security patches of the device are working. This aspect is very important, because without the guarantee of the security of the device, players such as banks will no longer allow their applications to run on the device (personal data is considered to be at risk in this sense).
  • The update allows you to benefit from 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 a phone with Android, the update (at the initiative of the manufacturer) goes through 4 main stages:

  1. Trust the Android Operation 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. As for the device, the electronic chip, which governs all the operation of the phone, must be adapted to this new version of Android. However, it is the chip suppliers who must ensure this fit and the few highly specialized players in this market do not necessarily make this mission a priority.
  3. The phone must also receive various additions called “specificity”. This is particularly true for the integration of the customizations of some telecommunications operators (for example with regard to voice over IP). These additions must then go through an approval process for each operator, in their own laboratories.
  4. Google must then approve the phone’s compatibility through a certification process. This process passes through a series of technical tests (almost 500,000), at the end of which the version of the operating system presented is validated, to be delivered to users.

Finally the phone will live and need maintenance cycles for each Android version. To do this, gamers (like Google and the chip provider) provide security patches every month. For each new security patch, the phone has to go through the 4-step process. Once Google stops providing these patches for an Android version, the phone should update to the next Android update.

However, when the chip vendor no longer provides the security patch, the virtuous chain no longer works. In theory, this means that software support can no longer be provided. If it so desires, it is now up to the manufacturer to find alternatives to allow the phone to remain compatible with the new Android updates.

The open source community can therefore prove to be an essential ally for manufacturers who wish to continue offering updates to their customers. There are also committed players like LineageOS, which allow you to get around this problem with a more open operating system that actually lasts longer.

But these alternative efforts are not yet widespread enough in the industry. If digital actors do not take this problem in hand, it is therefore up to public authorities to act to impose a binding framework that goes in this direction. With the REEN law in France, the DMA and EU battery regulatory attempts, regulators are demonstrating their momentum but must follow these efforts.

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

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