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From e-waste to user's rights: how do we make the smartphone smarter?

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The end is nigh — for my phone. Or so it feels, every time a new iPhone is unveiled. My Spartan black Motorola has followed me around for almost four years, allowing me to stay connected while in graduate school, and helping me arrange important meetings and buy Christmas gifts. It's becoming a sentimental Pony Express in a brave new world.

Sending my phone straight to the dump would seem like committing conversations, not just chemicals, to an unfathomable underworld. Meanwhile, the smartphone market grows more competitive. What if Apple soon decides to best this year's offering, in spite of itself? A handset hero starts to feel a little more obsolete with each annual upgrade.

All sorts of new options for trading in smartphones are cropping up, depending on whether you want to save money or the environment. What are the legal, cost-effective, eco-friendly and pro-privacy options for disposing of a smartphone — without taking all the fun of owning the latest gear?

It helps to start with the big picture. Since 1997, activists have railed against the cyberdystopias in Third World countries, which they claim are created by U.S.-exported electronic waste. The surreal inhabitants of this landfill scenario are scavengers as toxic cooks, extracting precious metals mined elsewhere. It isn't uncommon to find workers in China, for example, burning circuit boards over open fires or dunking hard drives in acidic baths that recover gold.

One proposed solution is to grow the U.S. tech recycling industry, which would dam the e-waste stream while creating jobs for America. Results can be uneven. It was discovered last year that Executive Recycling, a Colorado-based company, was actually just shipping its collected junk overseas.

Some suggest subsidizing a popular company like Apple, so manufacturing relocates to America. That would mean higher taxes for some and jobs for others. It might encourage at least symbolic partnerships with nearby recyclers, too, providing economic and environmental benefits.

Cheap labor isn't the No. 1 incentive for moving smartphone manufacturing abroad. Coordinating the supply chain is the real expense. It's about being able to find the necessary widget just around the corner and the ability to hire a flexible staff, with a just-right skill set, in a snap.

In 2011, President Barack Obama asked Steve Jobs about the possibility of assembling the iPhone in America. (Note: Well after he was elected, Obama continued to use a 2006 Blackberry.) Jobs replied: Forget about those jobs ever returning.

A few months after that conversation, Google purchased Motorola. Many wondered why a company that builds the rival Android software would buy the inventor of the first cell phone. Peddling sustainability, Google announced the Moto X this summer: customizable inside and out — wood phones! — and assembled in Texas.

While not yet popular like the iPhone, in terms of hardware and software the Moto X holds its own. It showed a company bringing together the operations that scale differently: re-connecting design and engineering with where phones are made, how they're made and what they're made of.

As for where phones end up, companies still need to get smart. Between October and December 2012 alone, 52 million smartphones were sold in the United States. This fall, Apple doubled its annual phone offering, as rumored.

On another front, the Phonebloks campaign wants to shift expectations away from these planned upgrades. With a user-friendly, Lego-like construction, it hopes to prevent a single worn or outdated part from leading to the disposal of the whole phone. The idea also is based on use: Get a bigger camera piece and a smaller speaker, if the goal is more pictures and less music.

Motorola just announced Project Ara, which will take input from the Phonebloks community and turn the idea into a reality. Specs for Motorola's basic endoskeleton platform will be made public, so that anyone can develop his or her own block.

Meanwhile, how to keep the user from feeling used? Typical plans involve a down payment and two-year contract with a carrier that subsidizes the full cost of the phone. In July, carriers started marketing plans for those who want to upgrade every year. The cost of this type of plan equates to buying the phone twice.

Carriers lock units so the phones can only be used with their services. Try to use your old phone with a new carrier — you'll be blocked. President Obama is fighting the Federal Communications Commission, which recently declared that unlocking a phone is illegal. Unlocked phones, while more expensive up front, are commercially available. Legalizing unlocking at least would support phone reuse.

Former phones can bring in variable amounts of cash or credit. The most traditional route is a trade-in with the manufacturer. There are online marketplaces that specialize in buying used phones, and even big-box stores are after old gear. The height of cutting-edge convenience is the ecoATM, which dispenses cash for gadgets. It's easy and a good idea to back up, then erase, all data before selling. Removing the phone's SIM and SD cards, which are storehouses, will protect privacy.

There's always the option of holding on. But that first generation iPhone? Apple circulated an internal memo in June saying it will classify the original as vintage. When it comes to repairs, stalwart users will be left to their own devices.

Take comfort, smart-but-not-smartest-phone users: Last holiday season, Time magazine documented Obama still packing a Blackberry, just slightly newer than the model he used to dial up Change You Can Believe In. S

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Paul Spencer is a Richmond-based writer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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