Fairphone – the sustainable, modular smartphone company – is still delivering updates to the 5-year-old Fairphone 2. The company won’t win awards for speed, but the phone that launched Android 5 in 2015 is now updated on Android 9.0. The most interesting part of this news is a video from Fairphone about the update process the company went through, which offers more transparency than we normally get from a smartphone manufacturer. To hear Fairphone tell the story of Android updates is – surprise! – Qualcomm’s biggest barrier to long-term support.
Fairphone wants consumers to keep their phones longer and reduce e-waste and carbon emissions through modular replacement parts that are easy to upgrade and repair. Software support is a major challenge in designing such a durable phone. Even if Fairphone wanted to endorse a phone forever, Android software updates don’t work that way, and major OS updates are usually based on a relay run of companies, all of which have to pass a build of Android before it hits your phone.
We’ve already covered this, but let’s do a quick look back at how Android makes it to your smartphone. First, Google is releasing builds of AOSP (the Android open source project) for everyone. However, this doesn’t work on a phone just yet. First of all, your System on a Chip (SoC) manufacturer (usually Qualcomm) needs to access it and customize Android for a specific SoC and add drivers and other hardware support. That build then goes to your phone manufacturer (in this case, Fairphone), who supports the rest of the hardware – such as cameras, the display, and other accessories – as well as built-in apps and custom Android skin work that the company plans to do.
As a 5 year old phone, the Fairphone 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC. This is a big problem when trying to provide long term support. Karsten Tausche, software developer at Fairphone, explained in the video: “Qualcomm has already stopped supporting the chipset after Android 6, which made the update to Android 7 considerably more difficult than, for example, the update to Android 6.” Fairphone said the lack of Qualcomm support was addressed thanks to LineageOS, the Android community’s largest custom ROM project. Just like your SoC and hardware manufacturer would officially provide AOSP builds for a device, Lineage also creates device-specific, bootable versions of Android from source and distributes them to everyone as an aftermarket ROM. Qualcomm is the only company with full access to Qualcomm’s proprietary code blobs and hardware documentation. As a result, an unofficial, hacked-up build usually doesn’t get the level of shine you get from an official release with the support of every hardware company. Lineage usually lives in the aftermarket phone hobbyist realm, so that’s fine.
However, Fairphone is a licensee for Google apps. This is an official version. Therefore there is a higher quality limit. Lineage must pass Google’s approval process, also known as the Compatibility Test Suite, a series of tests to ensure that manufacturers have built Android correctly. The software has no major compatibility problems with apps and complies with all guidelines prescribed by Google for Android. Fairphone also seems to be almost critical of Google’s compatibility process. With every new version of Android it gets “more complex”, and Android 9 offers “480,000” tests. Fairphone wasn’t sure if it could deliver an official version of Android 9 until it developed solutions for all of Google’s testing needs.
For the company’s current phones, the Fairphone 3 and 3+, the company is planning an Android 11 update in the second half of this year. According to Fairphone, Qualcomm plans to end support for the Snapdragon 632 chip these phones are based on in July 2021. Fairphone wants to provide “at least one more important Android update” after Android 11. However, this means that another update will be performed without the assistance of Qualcomm.
As always with Android, things will get better in the future. As the Android 10 launch phone, the Fairphone 3 supports Project Treble, a comprehensive new development from Android that separates the operating system from the hardware support. Treble was designed to precisely solve the problem of the older Fairphone 2. The split means that a company can theoretically upgrade Android without needing assistance from its chipset manufacturer.
Today Qualcomm promises 3 years the chipset support for critical updates, which was seen as a big improvement over the two years it was earlier. That is nowhere near as long as Apple, which offers around five years of support for an iPhone. Qualcomm previously explained to Ars that “the length of time a chipset is supported … is determined in collaboration with our customers,” but here is a customer asking for more support – and it doesn’t happen.
Exchange concluded the video by saying that although the work was difficult, Fairphone wanted to set an example. Tausche said, “We’re proud to show the industry that, despite our small team, it’s possible to support your phones longer.”