Crowdfunded Fairphone goes into production

By John Leonard
10 Jun 2013 View Comments

Last week, Fairphone announced that it had sold 5,000 smartphones.

This may not sound much in a world where such proclamations generally come with three more zeros attached, but for Fairphone it means that it is now in business. The 5,000 sales are in fact advance orders, and Fairphone's success in achieving this milestone means that the Dutch social enterprise can now take its smartphone into production.

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Along with some seed capital backing, the phone is largely crowdfunded, and the figure of 5,000 pre-sales at €325 (£276) per phone is the sort of number that a manufacturer might look for if they are to tool up to produce a short initial run of 20,000 phones.

Founded in 2010, Fairphone is no ordinary smartphone manufacturer, as product strategist Miquel Ballester explained to Computing.

"Before 2013 we were a foundation. But as a foundation you cannot make a phone. That's why we became an enterprise. It's the only way to really investigate the challenges."

As a foundation Fairphone campaigned against the dire conditions endured by those working in sections of the electronics goods supply chain, from the tin, cobalt and tantalum mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), many of which are controlled by armed groups and supported by corrupt middlemen and politicians, to the assembly lines in China where harsh conditions and long hours are the norm.

Now, rather than restricting itself to campaigning, the organisation aims to prove that it is possible to build a reasonably priced, well-specified smartphone with a low environmental impact, sourced from those very same countries while supporting independent miners and manufacturers who guarantee basic standards to their employees.

The key to this, said Ballester, is understanding and demanding transparency from every link in the supply chain. By partnering with NGOs on the ground in DRC, Fairphone looks to ensure that the raw materials that go into the phone do not fund the warring parties in that country.

It has also selected a Chinese smartphone manufacturer, A'Hong, to assemble the phones. A'Hong has accepted the crowdsourcing model and has given guarantees about transparency, social and environmental issues. The assurances that Fairphone demands from partners go well beyond the often worthless box-ticking approach of a standard social audit, and Ballester says the quest to find a suitable manufacturer has been difficult.

"We don't want to just be seen as the 'good boys'. We don't want to have a checklist. We want to find out what are the workers' challenges, and how can we resolve them."

As a very small organisation - there are only eight full-time staff - Fairphone is maximising its impact through an open-source, social and collaborative approach, with audits run through partnerships with charities and NGOs, funding through crowdsourcing and marketing solely through social media. This open approach extends to plans for the phone itself and the software, although Ballester admits there is some way to go on this.

"Our vision is open design, but you can't do everything today. The initial hardware design is by A'Hong and Kwame Corp are helping with the software. Kwame has also done work with Samsung and MeeGo [the discontinued operating system that has now been taken on by Jolla]. Ultimately, we would love users to be able to install any open-source software [including Firefox, Sailfish and Ubuntu], but it really depends on the open-source communities to make this happen."

As it is, the initial batch of phones will come with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean installed, although the device will be rootable, meaning users can freely install other operating systems if they wish.

Elsewhere, the specifications point to a mid to high-end phone that is built to last, with removable batteries, dual SIM cards, expandable storage and a tough Dragontrail glass screen.

"We want you to buy a phone and keep it as long as you can. So we make sure we lower obsolescence by providing plenty of software and hardware upgrades. The glass was a very expensive decision for us," said Ballester, "but if it stops the screen getting scratched then it will be a longer time before the phone gets replaced, which is our goal."

The Fairphone handset will go on sale in the EU in October, with a two-year warranty. At present the specifications are as follows, although these may change after prototype testing in August.

  • Network type: GSM850/900/1800/1900MHZ, WCDMA 900/2100MHz 
  • Default OS: Android 4.2
  • Chipset MTK6589 (quad-core) 1.2 GHz
  • System memory: 16GB + 1GB (RAM)
  • Dimensions: 123x64.5x9.8mm
  • Primary screen: 4.3 qHD (960x540 pixels)
  • Glass: Dragontrail glass
  • Primary camera: 8 megapixels
  • Secondary camera: 1.3 megapixels
  • Replaceable battery
  • Weight: 165g

Massimo Banzi, CEO of open-source hardware firm Arduino, commented: "Fairphone is touching on an important topic in the electronics industry that nobody wants to talk about: the origin of our products."

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