Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware?

There are a number of pernicious trends in the tech industry that need to be opposed. Over the last decade there has been a massive shift toward planned obsolescence, ever since Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007 and the Macbook Air in January 2008 with sealed cases, non-replaceable batteries, RAM and SSD soldered on the motherboard and a lack of expansion slots.

Apple’s designs have been widely copied by the consumer electronics industry, so that it has become much harder to fix and upgrade electronics. Most ultrabooks, Chromebooks and 2-in-1 convertibles being sold today have copied Apple’s Macbook and no longer have replaceable batteries. Even brands such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad and Dell’s Latitude which are marketed for their fixability and ease of maintenance are now offering models such as the Thinkpad T470s and Latitude E5450 without removable batteries.

WhenLaptopFeaturesIntroduced

It took the rest of the computer industry a couple years to follow Apple’s bad example in planned obsolescence, but the commercial success of the Macbook Air eventually convinced the rest of the laptop manufacturers to also start designing ultraportables that can’t be upgraded and are difficult to repair. At first Lenovo tried to match the Macbook Air with the X300 that didn’t have an ExpressCard expansion port, but still included a removable battery, a RAM slot, optical drive, a standard 2.5″ harddrive, VGA port and access panels in the case to easily replace components. After 3 years of loosing sales to Apple, Lenovo decided to copy Apple and introduced the X1 in 2011 with a non-removable battery and no optical drive or VGA port. A year later Lenovo gave up on making upgradable ultaportables and introduced the X1 Carbon with the RAM soldered to the motherboard and no standard 2.5″ bay for the SSD inside a case with no easy access panels. In 2013, Lenovo decided to copy Apple’s features in its other Thinkpads. In its 14″ models, the T431s and T440, Lenovo got rid of the access panels in the case and the ExpressCard expansion ports, so it was much harder to upgrade these models. In all the 2013 models, Lenovo got rid of the indicator lights (harddrive access, WiFi access and Caps Lock) that help to diagnose hardware problems and replaced its traditional 7 row keyboards with chiclet keyboards. The old keyboard was designed to pop off the keys, so it could be easily cleaned when cruft gets under the keys, whereas the new chiclet keyboard is more likely to be replaced or the whole laptop junked when dirt or spilled liquids accumulate under keys.

To encourage its customers to buy a new 14″ inch laptop, rather than upgrading the CPU, Lenovo started soldering down the CPU in the T440. This was part of a general trend in the industry. Intel stopped offering socketed CPUs for mobile devices when it introduced Broadwell in 2014. Most laptop manufacturers had already decided to follow Apple’s bad example and solder the CPU to the motherboard so it couldn’t be upgraded, but Intel killed off the upgradeable CPU for high powered workstation and gamer laptops that still used CPU sockets. Now when something goes bad on the motherboard, the CPU has to be replaced as well. At that point, most people decide to junk the entire laptop, rather than fix it.

The planned obsolescence is even worse with tablets and smartphones, whose components are all soldered down. The last tablet with a removable battery was the Dell Venue 11 Pro (Haswell version) announced in October 2013, but it was an expensive Windows device that cost as much as a mid-range laptop. The last Android tablet with a removable battery was the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (GT-N8000 series), released in August 2012. It is still possible to find mid-range smartphones with removable batteries. Last year the only high end phones with removable batteries were the LG G5 and V20, but even LG has given up on the idea of making phones that will last longer than 2 years once the battery starts to degrade after roughly 500 full charge and discharge cycles. Every flagship phone introduced in 2017 now has its battery sealed in the case. According to the gmsarena.com database, the number of new smartphone models with non-replaceable batteries grew from 1.9% in 2011 to 26.7% in 2014, and now to 90.3% in 2017. It is highly likely that not a single model of smartphone introduced next year will have a replaceable battery.

EvolutionOfMobilePhones

Replacing the battery has become increasingly difficult with the introduction of waterproof cases, the use of glue to hold together the case and hold down the battery and the use of solder to attach the battery leads. It used to possible to buy replacement batteries in stores that sold phone accessories like protective cases and chargers, but now most replacement batteries have to be ordered from China which can take weeks to arrive. Most people simply buy a new phone rather than deal with the hassle of trying to crack open the sealed case and replace the battery

Just like Apple introduced the idea of phones without removable batteries, Apple also introduced the concept of high-end phones without expandable memory cards when it launched the first iPhone. A number of phone makers such as Google, OnePlus and Xiaomi (in its high-end models) have followed Apple’s example by eliminating the MicroSD card slot, so users are encouraged to junk their existing phone and buy a new one when the internal memory fills up. According to the gsmarena.com database, 10.7% of the mobile phone models introduced so far this year do not have expandable memory slots.

Trends in smartphone design have made it more likely that mobile devices will be damaged and junked prematurely, which shortens their lifespan. The elimination of protective bezels around the edges of phones has made it more likely that the glass front of mobile phones will be cracked when phones are dropped. The move toward larger screens and thinner cases which are made of smooth metal and glass rather than plastic has made mobile phones harder to hold and more likely to slip out of the hands. The growing use of cases made of metal rather than plastic increases the likelihood of cracking the glass, since metal transmits shock of drops to the glass front rather than absorbing it like plastic. The recent trend of back cases made entirely of glass, as found in the iPhone X, HTC U11, Moto X4 and LG G6, dramatically increases the likelihood of cracking the case. The increasing use of OLED screens that are curved inward in the middle and curved around the side edges means that screens can no longer be protected with additional tempered glass covers and they have no protection from drops on the front edges.

The front glass, screen and digitizer are now fused together in a single unit so mobile phones are now more expensive to fix when the front glass gets cracked than they were a decade ago. The growing trend toward large screen phablets and the use of high resolution IPS LCD and OLED screens means that the cost of replacing phone screens has increased, so people are more likely to junk a phone, rather than fix a cracked screen. The increasing difficulty of opening the case and the growing use of glue, solder and plastic pressure tabs instead of screws has also made it more time consuming and labor intensive to replace damaged screens, degraded batteries and other components.

At the same time, the falling prices of smartphones which have dropped from an average selling price of $440 in 2010 to $283 in 2016 have encouraged consumers to upgrade more quickly to newer models, rather than continuing to use their existing phones and repairing damaged devices. The average lifespan of a mobile phone in the US is 21 months, according to Recon Analytics.

The transition to more mobile devices has caused a shift to computing devices that can’t be fixed or upgraded. Global production of desktop PCs peaked in 2007. Their sales were superseded by laptops whose global production peaked in 2011. Laptops in turn were superseded by tablets, whose global production peaked in 2014. Many industry pundits predicted that the tablet would become the new PC, but their sales have been declining as in recent years as the size of smartphone screens have increased. 45.0% of the new mobile phones introduced in 2017 have screens 5.5 inches or larger and 88.7% have screens 5 inches or larger. These devices known as “phablets” are increasingly becoming general purpose computers for many people, especially in the developing world where people don’t own a PC. Even for people do own PCs, they are using them less often in favor of mobile devices. eMarketer reported in May 2017 that the average US adult spends 3 hours and 14 minutes per day using mobile devices, compared to 2:08 using desktop PCs and laptops. Time spent in front of the TV is declining as people increasingly get their entertainment online. Global production of TVs has been in decline since 2011. The smartphone is increasingly being used in place the TV since it allows people to view video anywhere. According to Gartner, global production of smartphones reached 1,495.4 million devices in 2016, or 1 for every 5 people on the planet.

GlobalProductionElectronicDevices

DeviceProductionPeaks-ShifttoMobile

The shift toward more mobile devices can be seen in the way Apple’s quarterly sales are increasingly dominated by mobile devices. Sales of the iPhone overtook the Mac PC in the 3rd quarter of 2008. The iPad has outsold the Mac PC ever since it was launched in 2010. After Apple introduced its iPhone Plus with a 5.5 inch screen in 2014, sales of the iPad have fallen as customers increasingly opted to do more of their computing activities on a phablet rather than a tablet. In 2016, Apple sold 5 times as many iPhones as iPads and 11 times as many iPhones as Mac PCs.

AppleDeviceSales

Each of these changes in form factor toward a more mobile device has been a switch to a less fixable and less upgradeable device with a shorter lifespan. Laptops are harder to repair than desktop PCs, and tablets have no user-replaceable parts, so they are even less likely to be repaired. Desktop PCs generally last longer than laptops and laptops generally last longer than smartphones. It is hard to find reliable data on device replacement rates, but the sales numbers indicate that most people replace their tablets at about the same rate as they replace their laptops, whereas they replace their smartphones more often.

The rapid turnover of mobile phones has been encouraged by 2 year service contracts that include a new phone at subsidized prices and the locking of phones so that they only work with a single carrier’s network during that 2 year period. The easiest way to switch cellular service providers is to simply buy a new phone.

Part of the reason why desktop PC, laptop and tablet sales are declining is the fact that each new generation of processor has offered diminishing margins of improvement for most users. Intel’s 8th generation of Core processor isn’t noticeably better than its 4th generation for the average person who isn’t doing CAD, movie editing, or some other processing-intensive task, so there isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade. The sealed cases, non-removable batteries, soldered RAM and SSD, the lack of expansion ports and the use of glue, solder and plastic pressure tabs instead of screws can be seen as an effort to provide thinner and lighter devices demanded by consumers, but these features may also be an effort on the part of the electronics industry to induce more demand by shortening the lifespan of electronics, so that consumers are compelled to buy new devices, even when they don’t offer compelling new features or better utility than the old devices.

The shortened lifespan of electronics caused by planned obsolescence is increasing its ecological footprint. 70% to 80% of the total energy of smartphones, tablets and laptops lies in their initial production. Shortening the life of a smartphone from 3 to 2 years and tablets and laptops from 5 to 3 years means consuming a greater amount of natural resources and emitting more pollution and greenhouse gases into the environment. Greenpeace estimates that the 17 leading electronics manufacturers that it tracks in its Guide to Greener Electronics emitted 103 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent in 2016. Greenpeace probably underestimates the total emissions, since its estimates are based on process-sum methodology which often overlooks many of the associated activities in manufacturing.  It is very hard to estimate the energy and resources that are consumed in a long supply chain and it is particularly hard when using highly purified chemicals in silicon fabs and LCD factories which require prodigious amounts of processing and energy to produce. The investigations by Eric Williams into the production a DRAM chip and a desktop PC with a 17″ CRT monitor found that the total energy was much higher when all the associated activities not included in process-sum are estimated using an economic input-output method.

As the screens of smartphones have gotten larger, the battery sizes have also gotten larger to be able to power those large screens and the amount of graphics processing has increased to push more pixels on higher resolution screens. The number of sensors in phones has also increased and the resolution of cameras and processing power of the camera’s digital signal processors has also increased. The processors in today’s high-end smartphones are more complex and contain more transistors than the processors in most laptops. The A11 Bionic processor in the iPhone 8 and X contains 4.3 billion transistors and the Snapdragon 835 found in high-end Android phones contains over 3 billion transistors. Intel no longer releases transistor counts for its processors, but its Broadwell-U, which was used in most 2015 laptops, contained 1.3 billion transistors, and the CPUs in current laptops probably have around 3 billion transistors. Smartphones have more transistors once you add in the dozen other chips which are needed to run the sensors and advanced cameras found smartphones, but not in laptops and tablets.

As smartphones have grown in size and complexity, the amount of energy and resources to manufacture them has also grown, as well as their greenhouse gas emissions. Apple estimates that its iPhone 3G, which weighed 135 grams and sported a 3.5 inch screen, emitted a total of 55 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. As subsequent iPhone models got larger, their greenhouse gas emissions doubled to 110 kg for the 6 Plus, which weighed 172 grams and contained a 5.5 inch screen.

GHGEmissionsOfiPhone

After the iPhone 6, Apple embarked on a campaign to start using renewable energy in its facilities and claimed that it had halved the emissions in the iPhone 6s. These claims are highly dubious since most of its emissions occur in silicon and LCD fabs located in Korea and Taiwan and in assembly plants located in China, where most of the energy comes from burning coal. It is probably best to ignore the emission numbers claimed by Apple since the 6s as corporate greenwashing, but the rising emissions before that are indicative of smartphones in general which have undergone a similar transformation to larger screens, batteries and processors.

As smartphones have grown more complex, their emissions have increasingly shifted away from the usage stage and toward the manufacturing. According to Apple, 49% of the iPhone 3G’s emissions lay in its usage, whereas this percentage shrank to just 11% with the iPhone 6, as manufacturing increasingly consumed more resources and generated more emissions. This shift in emissions away from usage and toward production, means that planned obsolescence and the shortened lifespan of smartphones will lead to a much larger carbon footprint.

We are increasingly moving away from desktop PCs which were fixable and upgradeable for long lifespans toward more mobile devices which aren’t designed to fixed and upgraded. To ensure that mobile devices last longer, we need to support hardware companies which don’t base their profits on planned obsolescence and rapid sales. Unfortunately, the traditional PC companies, like HP, Lenovo and Dell, are now getting a smaller proportion of their revenues from their enterprise-class PCs and service contracts to maintain those PCs. They are increasingly moving toward planned obsolescence and rapid turnover as a business model to prop up their declining sales.

If we don’t want to be pressured into buying throw-away devices with short lifespans, we will need to support new hardware companies whose business model is not based on mass-market planned obsolescence, but rather selling specialty devices with better profit margins which are used by customers who are willing to pay more and buy replacement parts and long-term service contracts. Fortunately, it is now possible for new companies to arise which provide fixable and upgradeable devices. The cost of bringing new hardware to market had fallen dramatically in recent years, so it is no longer necessary to be a giant corporation like Samsung or Lenovo to design and market laptops, tablets and smartphones. A small company working with a Chinese or Taiwanese ODM can quickly adapt the base design and system-on-a-chip provided by Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Spreadtrum or NXP and launch a new device with just a couple million dollars in capital. CAD, 3D printing and the competition of ODMs in China have dramatically reduced the cost of prototyping and developing new products. It is also no longer necessary to spend millions of dollars on expensive marketing, since most marketing can be done very cheaply through social media and online advocacy. Even the cost of raising capital has fallen, since new devices can be financed through crowdfunding campaigns where customers preorder online. Instead of continuing to give our money to giant corporations who don’t have our best interests at heart, we should support companies that do.

Another worrisome trend in the tech industry is IT services based on monetizing users’ personal information. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon showed the world that billions of dollars could be made by using users’ own data to do targeted marketing. Google gives away its operating systems and the Chrome web browser for free and offers hundreds of valuable services for free such as Search, Drive, Docs, Gmail, Maps, Streetview, Now, Assistant, Hangouts, Photos, etc. as a means to collect our data and construct personal profiles of our habits, preferences and associations. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and TVs have increasingly become personal data collection devices with the introduction of Android in 2008, Chromebooks in 2011 and Chromecast in 2013. Now that Microsoft is copying Google’s business model in Windows 10, PCs are also becoming personal spying devices.

As the race for the best artificial intelligence heats up, the tech companies are increasingly trying to collect more of our data to better train their AIs. Companies like Samsung and Apple which want to compete with the AIs offered by Google, Amazon and Microsoft now have an incentive to also start collecting our data. Many consumer electronics companies increasingly view our data as another revenue stream, as evidenced by the way that the iRobot Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner creates maps of people’s houses in order to sell that information. The internet of things promises to take this data collection to a whole new level, as more and more of our lives are monitored by electronic devices.

Targeted marketing based on our personal lives convinces us to buy things that we don’t need and our desires and social attitudes are influenced by corporate interests. Even if we tell ourselves that we aren’t affected by all the targeted advertising, we can’t help but absorb some of the underlying message that more consumption will make us happier or more socially desirable and whatever we currently own is not as good as the latest model. With social networks, our friendships are becoming agents of marketing and personal recommendations become suspect since they may be incentivized, which breaks down our trust in others. Still, greater consumerism and materialism and the breakdown of social trust are hardly new phenomena in our Capitalist society. The loss of personal privacy is now assumed, especially among younger generations which have never known a time when their personal lives were not being stored on corporate databases and analyzed to monetize their data.

What is most concerning is when our personal data from little brother (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo!, etc.) is passed to big brother (the whole gamut of 3 letter governmental agencies). Just knowing that the government could be watching will cause many people to self-censor their digital speech and give many people pause when exercising their civil rights. How many people will decide not to go to an anti-war rally, sign an online petition or express their opinion about a policy since they fear that it might affect their ability to get their next job?

Many free software advocates were convinced that it was a good thing when the corporate world adopted Linux and other open source software, but the adoption of free and open source software has often not led to greater personal freedom for the users.   Many companies like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook took Linux, Apache, MySQL and the rest of the open source software to construct enormous data warehouses that collect our personal information. Being open source only made it easier for these companies to adapt the software to better suck up the details of our private lives. We won the battle of convincing many companies to use open source software, but lost the larger campaign for greater user freedom. We found out that the software license meant little if the software was sitting behind a corporate firewall or if the software was placed on a device designed to spy on us and collect the details of our private lives.

If we want these dangerous trends in the tech industry to stop, then we must be prepared to pay for our IT services, rather than getting them for free. I know this, yet I still use free email services from Yahoo! and Google, which share my data with the NSA. I don’t like the fact that Google, Facebook and Amazon are monetizing my personal data, but I still continue to give it to them. I post the details of my life on Facebook and shop on Amazon. I enter my searches into Google and Microsoft’s Bing, without trying to obscure them through duckduckgo.com. When am I going to start paying an email provider, rather than using a free email account?  Or better yet, when am I going to take the time to set up my own email server on my own VPS? I have the technical skill to run my own email server, chat server and blog, yet I use free services from untrustworthy companies who monetize my data and share it with the government. Rather than endlessly denounce these companies, I should have taken the steps to prevent it.

I have been using Linux since 1999, yet I have been mostly a freeloader, doing very little to help to develop the operating system or its software applications or contribute to companies that do the development. I have never given a single cent to the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, the Linux Foundation, Red Hat, Canonical, SuSE, the Mozilla Foundation, the Debian Foundation or any other organization that supports the development of free and open source software.

If I want Linux compatible hardware, I need to be willing to pay for it, yet I have never once paid for a PC which comes with Linux preloaded. Instead, I have paid the Microsoft tax for every laptop I ever bought:
1995: Panasonic 386 laptop with Window 3.1.1,
1999: IBM Thinkpad i1412 with Windows 98,
2005: Compaq Presario v2410 with Windows XP,
2008: Lenovo Thinkpad SL300 with Windows XP,
2011: Lenovo Thinkpad T410 with Windows Vista,
2015: Lenovo Thinkpad T450s with Windows 7  

I have loyally bought Thinkpads from Lenovo since they traditionally had excellent support for Linux, yet Lenovo repaid that loyalty from the Linux community by adding fingerprint readers to the last two years of Thinkpad models which have no Linux drivers. I am currently using a touchpad on the T450s which doesn’t support palm detection so my cursor constantly jumps around as I type. Clearly, Lenovo doesn’t care about my preferences and I should stop giving it my business.

I encounter the same frustration when buying smartphones. I only buy phones made by HTC and Motorola because they are phone makers which have a policy of allowing users to unlock the bootloader, so they can install any operating system which they like. I replace Android which collects my data with CyanogenMod (recently renamed as LineageOS), which doesn’t send my data to Google, unless I take the extra step of installing apps from Google Mobile Services. Currently, I have installed the Google Play Store and Microsoft’s Skype on my phone, but I have blocked those apps from sending out data when running in the background. Even though I make a point of only buying phones which are capable of running CynanogenMod, I am constantly encountering  little things that don’t work right. The dual microphone on my Moto X Pure Edition doesn’t work correctly, so I had to turn off the second microphone on the back of the phone which blocks background noise. This means that sound on my videos is muffled because the microphone is facing the wrong direction and people complain that they can’t hear me very well when I call them. The location detector when I use OpenStreetMap often doesn’t work correctly, I spend extra time trying to find places, because I don’t know exactly where I am on the map.

If I want a phone that won’t act as a personal spy device for Google or a promoter of planned obsolescence and environmental destruction like Apple, I need to support a company whose business model is in line with my goals. If I want a device that runs well on Linux, LineageOS or any other OS that doesn’t spy on me, I should be willing to pay companies who design their hardware for those OSes.

Fairphone based in the Netherlands is a new company which makes a modular smartphone that is easy to fix and designed to extend the life of the device so it will last up to 5 years. Fairphone offers a version of Android without Google Mobile Services (or the equivalent from Amazon or Alibaba), so the phone won’t collect user’s personal  data to monetize it. LineageOS, SailfishOS and Ubuntu Touch can also be installed on the device to help break the Android and iOS duopoly over the phone and tablet markets. In addition, Fairphone tries to ethically source its components to avoid abuse of workers and use conflict-free minerals. The company’s values align with mine, yet when I looked at the Fairphone 2’s price of €529, I decided that free software, freedom from surveillance, modular design, and ethically source hardware was just too expensive when I could buy a used Moto X Pure Edition with better specs and more up-to-date hardware for $210 on eBay. I justified that decision in my own mind by saying to myself that buying used prevented the fabrication of new hardware, so I was reducing the environmental impact of using a smartphone. Nonetheless, that decision was based less on my concern for the environment and more on the amount I am willing to spend on electronics. I support in spirit everything Fairphone is trying to do, but I’m not willing to spend an extra $400 on a phone to show my support.

Another company which is attempting to produce ethical hardware is Purism, which is a San Francisco based company focused on promoting user freedom and privacy. The company currently sells the Librem 13 and 15, which are thin and light laptops with 13 and 15 inch screens. The Librem offers 7 things that no other laptop currently on the market can offer :

  1. Two hardware kill switches to cut the web cam/microphone and Wifi/Bluetooth.
  2. Coreboot with Intel’s Management Engine disabled. The only other way to get a free/open source BIOS in a laptop is to buy a used Thinkpad T530 or HP Elitebook 2570p which has a 3rd generation Core (Ivy Bridge) processor.
  3. An easily openable case in a thin and light form factor. There are couple options for 15″ laptops which are fixable and upgradeable but they aren’t 0.85 inches thick and weigh only 4.0 lbs like the Librem 15. The Librem 13 is the only 13″ ultrabook on the market that makes it easy to open the case with a standard Phillips screw driver and replace the parts. In contrast, opening the cases of most thin-and-light laptops is a tricky process of prying apart delicate plastic pressure tabs and trying not to damage the components.
  4. Two RAM slots allowing up to a total of 32 GB of RAM (although officially only supporting up to 16 GB). The Librem 13 is the only 13″ laptop that allows the user to install this amount of RAM. In comparison, the Latitude 7280 and the Thinkpad X270 offer only a single RAM slot with a maximum of 16 GB of RAM and all the other thin-and-light Latitudes and Thinkpads with 11 – 13 inch screens have the RAM soldered to the motherboard.
  5. The ability to use both a 2.5″ 7mm SATA SSD and an M.2 2280 NVMe SSD at the same time. There are a couple 15″ laptops on the market such as the Thinkpad T570 which allow both a 2.5″ SATA SSD and an M.2 2242 NVMe SSD, but I haven’t been able to find one that allows a full sized 2280 drive with the PCIe interface, like the Librem 13 and 15.
  6. A wifi card that runs on entirely free software. The Librem 13 and 15 use the Atheros AR9462, which is the only wifi chipset in existence that doesn’t require proprietary firmware and supports 802.11 n. The Librem is the only laptop currently on the market that don’t require proprietary firmware. If you want this in any other new laptop, you will have to rip out the wifi card and buy a replacement card from ThinkPenguin.
  7. Ethical sourcing of its components. According to the Purism web site:

    We adhere to the following negotiating and sourcing priority list whenever possible:
    1. Freedom respecting
    2. Ethical working conditions
    3. Ecological impact
    4. Quality
    5. Price
    6. Availability
    7. Mean-time-between-failure
    8. Warranty
    9. Quantity breaks

    The primary focus of Purism is user freedom, privacy and security, but like Fairphone, it is also attempting to do ethical sourcing of its components and avoid planned obsolescence. Fairphone only produces smartphones for the European market, whereas Purism intends to make laptops, 2-in-1 tablets/laptops and smartphones and it will ship globally, so it could potentially have a larger impact.

As an added bonus, the Librem 13 and 15 have matte IPS 1080p screens, which are definitely the screens to use in a bright room with reflected light. If you are a power user who needs lots of RAM and disk space in a small form factor, Purism offers the best laptops on the market. If you want to support Linux hardware companies, then you only have a handful of options, such as ZaReason, System76, ThinkPenguin, Pogo Linux, etc., and Purism is arguably offering the freest laptop on the market.

The base model of the Librem 13 and Librem 15 cost $1399 and $1599, respectively, but those prices will increase by over $200 with a decent amount of RAM and a large SSD. It is hard for me to justify spending $1600 or $1800 for a laptop. The last laptop I bought was a Thinkpad T450s which was out of date, so I was able to pick up the base model on sale for $560 and then I replaced the crappy screen with a good IPS screen for $70 and added $35 of extra RAM. I value all the things that Purism is trying to promote, but I’m not sure if I can justify paying a thousand dollars extra for those things.

The other problem is that Purism doesn’t offer replacement parts for the battery, keyboard, motherboard, etc. I can buy replacement RAM, SSDs and wifi cards since they use standard form factors, but I can’t fix the Librem if any of its custom parts break. Purism plans to eventually offer a parts store, but it needs a large enough sale volumes to be able to make it work. In contrast, not only does Lenovo sell replacement parts for my Thinkpad, I can also find cheap replacement parts on eBay for most of the enterprise-class and higher-end laptops models sold by Lenovo, HP, Dell and Apple. Only when trying to fix cheap consumer models do I have trouble finding parts, because most people don’t bother repairing them when they break.

We desperately need an alternative to push back against the unethical practices in the tech industry. We should support tech companies that don’t promote planned obsolescence, but instead provide access panels or openable cases so you can easily replace and upgrade the RAM, SSD and wireless card. We need more tech companies that respect our freedom and doesn’t try to monetize our personal information.

Companies like Fairphone and Purism are doing the hard work of trying to push better practices in the supply chain, but their specialty hardware which bucks industry trends is expensive and these companies simply don’t have the economies of scale to match the prices of multi-billion dollar companies like Lenovo and Samsung. Thousands of idealistic consumers will have to be willing to pay extra to help these companies grow into viable alternatives to the giants that dominate the consumer electronics industry. I would love to see Fairphone and Purism offer more affordable models with mid-range components. I personally would be happy with a Snapdragon 625 or an Core i3 processor, rather than the Snapdragon 801 and Core i7 found in the Fairphone 2 and Librem, but that would only knock 100 – 150 dollars off the final price. Their products would still cost substantially more than I’m willing to pay.

I thought long and hard about whether I would help crowdfund the Librem 5, which is Purism’s campaign to build a Linux-based phone. I would love to have a phone that runs a Debian derivative and I can hook it up to a monitor and use it as PC. By 2019 when it is scheduled to be ready, I will be ready to retire my Moto X, however, I looked at the $599 price tag and I decided that I couldn’t contribute that much to what I view as an effort to reform the phone industry.

For people who are willing to pay $1000 for a new iPhone or Galaxy or $2000 for a new MacBook Pro, the prices charged by Fairphone and Purism are very reasonable. However, they cost enough that I would have to give up something else in my limited budget in order to be able to consider buying either of them. Do I care enough about personal freedom and privacy and trying to reform the electronics industry to give up something else in my life? It is a hard question for people like me who have chosen careers that don’t earn much money. Hopefully there are thousands of others who are concerned enough about the dangerous trends in the electronics industry to contribute to idealistic companies like Fairphone and Purism, but I won’t be one of these people on my current salary.

3 thoughts on “Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware?

  1. fp1_wo_sw_updates

    It’s all about the money.

    So just buy used and don’t support the brands that you think are doing the wrong thing. But also make sure for yourself what you want, this is where the companies target you. And this is what makes you ‘feel’ bad.

    Maybe a used iPhone and an old laptop can make you more happy than two perfect new “Fair” gadgets, that are still far far away from quality, fairness and freedom. Many little shops can still repair Apple, Samsung or LG gadget. And lineage.microg.org is out there, so is Debian/Ubuntu.

    I’m okay with paying for services, but many services and even the ones you pay for, start to “nudge” and to control their customers in a very annoying ways. So buy used and also buy less.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware? https://… | Dr. Roy Schestowitz (罗伊)

  3. Pingback: The strategic advantages of Phosh for mobile Linux | Random thoughts, conocimiento no conocido, yachay mana yachasqachu

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