Ubuntu Touch and the 10 Year Smartphone

The environmental impact of manufacturing a smartphone is big. So you better use your phone as long as possible instead of replacing it by a newer model every three years. Ubuntu Touch helps you extend your phone’s lifespan. Some phones are even still supported more than nine years after their release.

Manufacturing smartphones has a large climate impact. The production of their components is energy intensive and consumes important resources such as rare materials. Each time the factory produces a smartphone, it creates between 40 and 80 kg of CO₂, which is equivalent to a 3-hour drive. In addition, transportation and the end-of-life phase of smartphones again consume energy and other resources. All of this contributes to global warming.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental organisations, calculated that these non-use phases of the life cycle of smartphones account for 72% of a smartphone’s total climate impact, for an average product lifespan of three years. The EEB published about this in 2019 on behalf of the Coolproducts and Right to Repair campaigns in their report “Coolproducts don’t cost the Earth”.

The Ten Year Smartphone

If you could increase your phone’s lifespan, then those non-use phases would have a relatively lower share of your phone’s total climate impact, because the impact of these phases would be spread over a longer lifetime. The Right to Repair campaign even dares to dream about a 10 Year Smartphone. Such a phone would be designed for repair, with an easily removable battery, accessible and affordable spare parts and repair information, and software support that lasts 10 years.

The EEB study assessed the environmental impact from lifetime extension of all smartphones in the EU beyond their typical 3-year lifespan. Their analysis shows that a 1-year lifetime extension of all smartphones in the EU would save 2.1 million tonnes of CO₂ per year by 2030, the equivalent of taking over a million cars off the roads. A lifetime extension of 3 years would save around 4.3 million tonnes. A 5-year extension would correspond to about 5.5 million tonnes of CO₂, and extending the lifetime from 3 to 10 years would save 6.2 million tonnes. The latter equals a 42% reduction on the overall environmental footprint of smartphones.

Extending your phone’s lifetime isn’t only a dream of environmental organisations, but also a preference of many users. In the European Union’s Eurobarometer survey published in March 2020 respondents were asked for how long they would like to keep using their current smartphone or tablet, provided that there’s no severe drop in performance. 30% would like to keep using their current mobile devices for at least 5 years and 26% would prefer doing so for at least 10 years.

Software upgrades

While the idea of a 10 Year Smartphone is ambitious, it’s not impossible. However, most mobile operating systems have a limited support period.

If you have an Android phone from Google’s Pixel range, you get three years of major upgrades after its release. Many other Android manufacturers promise two to three years of upgrades. After this, your phone will become more and more unsafe to use (you don’t get any security updates) and eventually it isn’t able to run apps that use newer features.

Apple is consistently doing better with its iPhone models, with support periods for up to seven years. And Ubuntu Touch is also still supporting a couple of older phones.

The Google Nexus 5, released in October 2013, is one of our promoted devices. It’s also still the most popular phone among Ubuntu Touch users. Its predecessor Nexus 4, released in November 2012, is also still supported, although this will end when Ubuntu Touch migrates to the Ubuntu 20.04 base. And the third most popular Ubuntu Touch phone is the OnePlus One, released in April 2014.

The BQ Aquaris E4.5, released in June 2014, is notable for being the first commercially available phone to run Ubuntu Touch. Its Ubuntu Edition was launched as a partnership with Canonical in February 2015. It’s still supported in the latest Ubuntu Touch release. Our community member Moem uses the E4.5 as a demonstration phone when she gives talks about Ubuntu Touch: “People are always amazed how smoothly it still works.” Moem uses the Sony Xperia X, a phone released in 2016, as her daily driver.

Other older phones that are currently still supported in Ubuntu Touch are the Meizu MX4 (released in September 2014) and the Samsung Galaxy S3 Neo+ (released in January 2014).

Legislation for a longer lifetime?

In their report “Breaking the two-year cycle: Extending the useful life of smartphones”, NGI Forward explicitly puts forward the idea of alternative operating systems to extend the lifetime of devices when official software updates end. This project under the umbrella of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative proposes legislation to force manufacturers of smartphones to make it easier to port alternative operating systems to their phones, for instance by publishing source code of the kernel and drivers and by unlocking the bootloader.

In absence of such legislation, porting devices to Ubuntu Touch and keeping them maintained with every new version is a difficult task. However, our porters do their best to keep their devices supported as long as possible. If you’re currently still using a Google Nexus 5 with Ubuntu Touch as your phone, you’ve done your part of limiting the environmental impact of your smartphone.

Limited resources

That said, breathing new life into old devices for environmental reasons was never the aim of the UBports project. A focus on supporting older phones as long as possible would mean that Ubuntu Touch would have to cater for the lowest common denominator: devices with low performance and little memory. This would mean an operating system with only basic features.

UBports community member Lionelb stresses that with the limited resources we have, there’s no other option than to follow the latest developments in upstream software from Canonical, Qt and others. “This approach minimises our own development efforts. In an ideal world with extensive resources, we could have an ‘Ubuntu Touch Lite’ branch, in addition to the cutting edge branch. This branch would then be specifically developed to run on older devices.”

The current base build of Ubuntu Touch is Ubuntu 16.04. This upstream code is no longer supported by Canonical, so the UBports project aims to transition to the 20.04 base as soon as possible. This is a technically challenging task, and the result will only be backwards compatible to a limited extent. According to Lionelb, this will have an impact on users of older phones: “When the transition is complete, many old phones won’t be supported anymore. That’s not a policy decision, just a matter of reality. One branch is the most we can stretch to with our resources.”

However, Lionelb wants to end on a positive note, with the fascinating idea of repurposing your old phone: “Take ten S3 Neo devices. Remove the screens, power them all with one battery and then network them in some way. What type of device could you make then? Medical equipment, autonomous vehicle guidance, AI? This is a completely unexplored area.”

Ubuntu Touch OTA-21 Release