The planned obsolescence of smartphones

LG was the last major smartphone manufacturer to include replaceable batteries in its flagship phones, but it just joined the rest of the industry in pushing planned obsolescence when it recently released its G6 and V30 without replaceable batteries. Most people don’t buy the overpriced flagship phones, since they cost between $550 and $1150, but they are the reference where the industry is heading, since the features found in these phones will be commonplace in mid-priced phones in a couple years. Based on this year’s crop of flagships, we can expect most smartphones to have dual lens rear cameras, 9:18 OLED screens over 5.7 inches, bezel-less fronts with no physical buttons, glass backs, metal edge frames, and waterproof cases which enclose a non-replaceable battery.

A lithium ion battery lasts roughly 500 full charge and discharge cycles, before its capacity to hold a charge starts to noticeably degrade. If charged and discharged 100% every day, a cell phone’s battery will only last 1.3 years before it needs to be replaced. What degrades a battery is being kept at the extremes of 100% charge or discharge and being exposed to too much heat, which often happens when fast charging. A battery which is always kept between 80% and 20% of its full charge will last for 3000 recharge cycles or 6 times as long. Most people don’t charge and discharge their batteries 100% every day, but they do it enough so most phones batteries generally last around 2 years before the battery needs to be replaced because its ability to hold a charge starts to be significantly degraded. In other words, every high-end phone on the market today now has a life expectancy of roughly 2 years.

Of course, it is possible to crack open the phone’s case to replace the battery, but it has become significantly more difficult with the new waterproof cases in today’s smartphones. Unlike smartphones in the past that were designed to be opened, replacing the battery is a delicate operation, which will void the warranty. Opening the case generally destroys the waterproof seals in the phone’s casing and some models need to be heated to loosen up the seals. Some models have to be opened in particular way in order to avoid breaking delicate wires or connectors. ifixit.com publishes good instructions for many phone models on how to open the case without destroying the phone.

Some of the manufacturers glue the batteries to the case or solder the battery connection, just to make it doubly hard to replace the battery. When I cracked open the case of my Moto X Pure Edition phone, I had to buy a special screwdriver set and then reglue the plastic backing when reassembling it.

It used to be very easy to find replacement batteries for cell phones anywhere in the world. I used to be able to buy replacement batteries for my cell phone from street vendors in any Latin American country, but now I have to special order the batteries from China and it takes over a month to arrive. It is still possible to find some mid and low-range range phones with replaceable batteries such as Moto E4, Moto G5, Moto C, LG K7, LG Harmony, Samsung Z4, Samsung Galaxy J2, Xcover 4, J3 Emerge, J7 V, and J7 Nxt, but I predict that it won’t be possible to find any new models with replaceable batteries within a couple years.

Another way that manufacturers limit the lifetime of smartphones is by designing models which do not have a external memory slot. When the internal memory fills up, buying a larger memory card can extend the life of a phone, especially with the option in Android to install new apps in the external memory. However, phones without external memory slots are more likely to get junked once their internal memory fills up, since many people don’t want to take the extra time and effort of manually deleting unused apps and transferring their multimedia files to make space on their phones. It is often easier to buy a new phone with more built-in storage space, than to delete apps and constantly transfer files off the phone.

Other trends in the design of smartphones have increased the probability of breakage and the likelihood of a shorter lifespan. The use of glass across the entire front face of a smartphone was introduced by the first iPhone in 2007 and the lack of a protective bezel made of plastic or metal significantly increases the likelihood of cracking the phone’s screen. The bezel-less designs in today’s high-end phones makes it even more likely that the screen will be damaged in a drop. The new trend of making phones with glass backs also makes increases the chance of cracking the phone. The trend of making phones, thinner and thinner increases the likelihood of the phone bending and components breaking when inside a back pocket, as happened with the iPhone 6. Cell phones have become significantly more delicate and easier to break over the last decade, which is why protective cases are so commonplace today. Most smartphones today are fragile and few are designed to withstand much abuse, but feature phones a decade ago were far more rugged and generally lasted longer.

Most Android smartphone manufacturers only release one or two major upgrades of the operating system for their phones, and some don’t even do that. My Moto X phone has never received an update to Android 7, so I am forced to buy a new smartphone if I want to enjoy the new features of Nougat. Unlike PCs which are generally designed to be upgraded by the user, many of the drivers of smartphone hardware are not released to the public and can’t be installed separately, so the user generally depends on the smartphone manufacturer for upgrades. In some cases, a group like Lineage OS or Remix OS has cobbled together the drivers for the hardware in a particular model, so that it is possible to install an updated version of Android, but it is not an easy task for the non-technical user to perform the upgrade. Since smartphone manufacturers want to encourage users to junk their current phones and buy new ones in order to promote more sales of new hardware, they rarely support phones with more than one or two major upgrades of the operating system and two years of security updates. In order for a user to upgrade the operating system on a smartphone on her own, the bootloader of the phone needs to be unlocked. Only three brands (HTC, Lenovo’s Moto and Google’s Nexus) currently have policies allowing users to unlock the bootloader and doing so will void the warranty. All others brands force users to use unauthorized cracks and for some models there is no known way to unlock the bootloader.

The smartphone industry is highly competitive and most of the major brands, such as LG, Sony, Lenovo/Motorola, HTC, Microsoft/Nokia and HTC, loose millions of dollars every year selling their phones. In 2016, the global smartphone industry made $53.7 billion in profits, but Apple and Samsung captured 79.2% and 14.6% of those profits, respectively, The rest went to the Chinese brands Huawei, OPPO and vivo, which earned 1.6%, 1.5% and 1.3% of the profits, respectively. The rest of the industry lost $3 billion in 2016, which is hardly a surprise since most of the major smartphone companies have been in the red since 2012. In an industry where the lion’s share of all profits have gone to Apple for an entire decade, every phone company has tried to emulate Apple’s iPhone and its business model, which is based on planned obsolescence.

Apple was the first manufacturer to make an MP3 player and laptop without a replaceable battery when it introduced the iPod in 2001 and the Macbook Air in 2008. When Apple introduced its first generation iPhone in 2007, there had only been one other cell phone without a replaceable battery (the $5000 Vertu Constellation in 2006), but for all practical purposes, Apple was the first. Before the iPhone, there were low-end phones without a Flash memory card slot, but almost all high end phones had one. Apple made it fashionable to design higher-end phones without replaceable memory. Even worse, Apple invented a special pentalobe screw in 2009 to prevent its customers from opening the cases of their iPhones, iPods, iPads and Macbooks, so that only the Apple technicians had the tools to replace the components. In its laptops, Apple not only solders the RAM to the motherboard, but it also uses special proprietary connectors for the SSD or even solders it to the motherboard in recent models, so the customer is forced to buy a new laptop when needing more memory.

The rest of the industry has copied many aspects of iPhone’s supposed “good” design, since Apple’s iconic phone is considered the standard bearer that garners rave reviews and most of the industry’s publicity. According to gsmarena.com’s phone database, only 1.9% of the new cell phone models launched in 2011 didn’t have a replaceable battery. By 2016, that percentage had grown to 52.2%. Of the new cell phone models launched so far in 2017, 90.0% have non-replaceable batteries. In contrast, the percentage of new phone models without replaceable external memory has stayed the same at roughly 10% of all cell phone models, but a number of new brands like Google’s Pixel, OnePlus and some high-end Meizu models have copied Apple in not offering external memory slots in their phones. Samsung’s customers largely rejected Samsung’s attempt to remove the MicroSD card slot when it introduced its flagship Galaxy S6, so it returned in the S7, but external memory slots are likely to start disappearing from phones when non-removeable SIM cards are introduced in the future.

While it is true that using a non-replaceable battery allowed Apple to make thinner phones, but that made them harder to hold without slipping out of the hand. It also made it possible for Apple to cram a slightly larger battery into a smaller case. The biggest practical benefit, however, was the fact that the sealed case makes it easier to design a waterproof case. In a May 2012 survey of 2000 iPhone owners, SquareTrade found that 30% had damaged their iPhones in the last year and 27% of that damage was caused by liquids. In other words, there was an 8% chance (30% x 27% = 8%) of the iPhone being damaged by liquids, however, the probability of the battery degrading over time is 100%. At any rate, it is not impossible to design waterproof phones with a replaceable battery. Motorola introduced the Defy with an IP67 rating and a 1540 mAh replaceable battery in 2010. Making a waterproof phone with a replaceable battery might add a few extra grams and make the case a mm thicker, but it is certainly possible. It is simply hasn’t been deemed a priority by the smartphone manufacturers to include a replaceable battery.

A more important issue is the fact that it is difficult to design a case which is considered stylish and garners good reviews if it has a removable back cover, since it is generally made of plastic, rather than glass or metal. LG has been making phones for years with stylish metal cases and replaceable batteries, so is not impossible, but it is easier and cheaper to design a case which isn’t openable.

The smartphone makers are partly to blame for promoting planned obsolescence as a means of increasing their sales, but they aren’t making much money selling their phones. If they thought that their mobile divisions could become profitable by marketing phones with replaceable batteries, wider bezels to protect screens, thicker bodies and less stylish cases which are more durable, then they would build them. Most of the blame lies with consumers for buying delicate phones whose batteries and memory can’t be replaced to extend their lifespans. Year after year, the smartphone manufacturers watched customers line up in front of the Apple store to snatch up the latest in planned obsolescence at elevated prices, so they decided that customers don’t care about replaceable batteries, extendable memory, unlocked bootloaders or hardy design. Most consumers don’t think about the durability or longevity of smartphones when they buy them.

The reviewers and tech press have also done a very bad job of explaining to consumers the long-term cost of buying phones based on planned obsolescence, since their industry based on promoting the rapid junking of older models in favor of the latest and greatest gizmo they can hype. Reviewers of smartphones go into great depth about the latest minuscule change in the shape and feel of a smartphone’s case, but never talk about how hard it is to open that case to replace the battery or a cracked screen. They wax eloquent about how thin the bezel is, but they never once drop the phone on its bezel to see how well it protects the delicate glass from cracking. When Samsung introduced its Galaxy Edge with an AMOLED screen that curves around the edges, reviewers didn’t knock the phone for being more likely to break if it fell on its unprotected glass edges. Reviewers spill huge amounts of ink talking about how long a phone will last on a single charge, but they rarely bother to mention how long a phone will last if it is a fragile device which is easily broken or the battery can’t be replaced and the memory can’t be extended.

This building of planned obsolescence into the design of smartphones has an enormous social impact, because it basically limits smartphone usage to people who can afford to buy a new phone every 2 to 3 years. For roughly 3 billion people on the planet, the buying of a smartphone, even one that costs $50 is a significant economic burden and doing it every couple years is a formidable barrier to crossing the digital divide. If it were easy to swap out the battery and expand the memory, fewer smartphones would need to be manufactured, because it would be easier to extend the lifespan of existing smartphones, and it would be easier to refurbish used smartphones for resale. If smartphones lasted longer and more used phones were being sold, then the total cost of ownership would be significantly reduced and the digital divide would shrink between the haves and the have-nots.

Extending the average lifespan of smartphones would also have a significant environmental impact. Manufacturing 1.5 billion smartphones per year or 1 for every 5 people on the planet consumes an enormous amount of energy and resources. Manufacturing silicon chips and LCD screens are two of the most energy-intensive activities per gram of product in the world. Roughly a 1000 MJ of energy are expended to produce one kg of integrated circuits.

The environmental impact per phone is also rising as the average screen size grows larger and the battery size increases. The average amount of processing and graphics power, RAM, and camera resolution is also growing, as well as the number of sensors per camera. Today’s high-end smartphone packs more transistors and is more complex than the average PC. The A11 Bionic application processor found in the iPhone 8 and X sports 4.3 billion transistors and the Snapdragon 835 found in high-end Android phones contains over 3 billion transistors. Add in 6-10 sensors, 3-6 GB of RAM, 32-256 GB of Flash memory, 2-3 cameras, radio frequency transceivers, PAMs, power management ICs, antenna switches, etc. to get roughly 30 chips in a high-end smartphone.

Most life cycle assessment studies of smartphones probably underestimate their greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing, since it is very difficult to capture all the advanced processes that make such complex devices with hundreds of processing steps and hundreds of different parts. I would guesstimate that 150 kg of CO2-eq are emitted to manufacture the average smartphone, so roughly 225 megatonnes of CO2-eq are emitted in the manufacturing of 1.5 billion smartphones every year. If that estimate is correct, then just the manufacturing of smartphones would represent 0.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the average lifespan of smartphones could be extended from 2 to 3 years, so that only 1 billion smartphones needed to be manufactured per year, that alone would save 75 megatonnes of emissions per year.

Before bidding a sad farewell to the removable battery that used to be commonplace in smartphones just a few years ago, it worth reflected on what can be done to change the current trends in the smartphone industry. As smartphones increasingly become unfixable black boxes based on planned obsolescence, the need grows for consumers choose a manufacturer like Fairphone, which doesn’t try to force consumers to prematurely junk their phones in order to increase sales of new hardware. More importantly, governmental regulation need to be implemented to prevent planned obsolescence. Citizens can demand action from their governments because the current practices by the smartphone industry not only have a large social impact on poorer consumers, but they also harm the environment, and especially the climate.

6 thoughts on “The planned obsolescence of smartphones

    1. amosbatto Post author

      I used to have these requirements when buying a phone:
      1. replaceable battery
      2. MicroSD card slot
      3. supports LineageOS
      4. decent camera (so I could avoid buying a point-and-shoot camera)
      5. screen that is 5.5 inches or larger
      Unfortunately, it has become impossible to find a new phone that meets those criteria with a replaceable battery, so I used to recommend buying a used LG V20 which costs about $160 on eBay. However, I ended up buying a Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 for my last phone, because it met all my requirements except the replaceable battery and I needed a good camera.
      However, I decided to preorder the Purism Librem 5 to help finance the development of a Linux phone. Not only will the Librem 5 have lifetime software updates, but it uses 100% free software, so I know that the community can maintain the software even if the company goes bankrupt in the future. Unfortunately, the software for both the Librem 5 and the PINE64 PinePhone is still in development and the battery life is not good, so I can’t recommend Linux phones for normal users who don’t want to suffer through the privations of being an early adopter.

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  1. Tamppuss

    Excellent article! The only thing that I kind of disagree with is the claim that the battery lasts roughly 2 years. This implies that you have to replace the battery every 2 years, which isn’t true, at least for me. My Iphone 4 was bought 2013 and I stopped using it in 2017. I don’t know how much the battery has degraded because the battery has always been pretty bad, but it still works!

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    1. amosbatto Post author

      It appears that Apple limits the charging/discharging extremes to extend the lifespan of its batteries, but it also does things like slow down the CPU in older phones so that a charge will last longer (which caused a scandal because Apple wasn’t informing users that it was slowing down their old iPhones). Most phone manufacturers don’t take these measures. I have seen a number of Android phones that were junked because their batteries could no longer hold a charge. My laptop, a Thinkpad T450s, has become unusable because I can’t get a replacement internal battery.

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  2. Raccoon

    What a great write up. It’s three years old but I still miss removable batteries. Samsung dropped the headphone jack and will likely drop the microSD card slot.

    There are projects like the Fairphone and the Librem 5 but what we really want is a user focused flagship phone. The Fairphone isn’t a flagship and the Librem 5 is a Linux phone.

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    1. amosbatto Post author

      Probably the best phone that you can get today with a replaceable battery is a used LG V20 which currently sells for $160 on eBay or maybe the Axion 7. If you want to carry around a PDA, you might consider the Gemini Cosmo.

      I preordered the Librem 5, because I want to help finance the development of Linux phones, because Purism will provide lifetime software updates for the Librem 5. Even if Purism goes out of business, the community can maintain the software for the phone, which is why I think that it is important to support Linux phones, even if they will have lousy specs. I see it as an investment in a better future, because if the Librem 5 and the PinePhone do well, other manufacturers will start making Linux phones in the future with better specs.

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