New phone, who dis?

AT&T phone, circa 1975.

So I got a new phone. What makes the experience remarkable is that the old phone was a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which, if Wikipedia is correct, was released in 2014. So the phone was at least eight, probably nine, years old. When you update incrementally, like a man who gets his hair cut once a week, it’s hard to see any difference. When you leapfrog numerous generations of updates, it’s seeing the man who’s had his first haircut in a year: it’s a shock.

The tl;dr: most of what I don’t like about the switch is because of Google.

There were several reasons why I waited so long. It was a good enough phone and it had a very good camera for its time; I finessed the lack of security updates by not using the phone for functions where it mattered. Also, I didn’t want to give up the disappearing headphone jack, home button, or, especially, user-replaceable battery. The last of those is why I could keep the phone for so long, and it was the biggest deal-breaker.

For that reason, I’ve known for years that the Note’s eventual replacement would likely be a Fairphone, a Dutch outfit that is doing its best to produce sustainable phones. It’s repairable and user-upgradable (it takes one screwdriver to replace a cracked screen or the camera), and changing the bettery takes a second. I had to compromise on the headphone jack, which requires a USB-C dongle. Not having the home button is hard to get used to; I used it constantly. It turns out, though, that it’s even harder to get used to not having the soft button on the bottom left that used to show me recently used apps so I could quickly switch back to the thing I was using a few minutes ago. But that….is software.

The biggest and most noticeable change between Android 6 (the Note 4 got its last software update in 2017) and Android 13 (last week) is the assumptions both Android chief Google and the providers of other apps make about what users want. On the Note 4, I had a quick-access button to turn the wifi on and off. Except for the occasional call over Signal, I saw no reason to keep it on to drain the battery unnecessarily. Today, that same switch is buried several layers deep in settings with apparently no way to move that into the list of quick-access functions. That’s just one example. But no acommodation for my personal quirks can change the sense of being bullied into giving away more data and control than I’d like.

Giving in to Google does, however, mean an easy transfer of your old phone’s contents to your new phone (if transferring the external SD card isn’t enough).

Too late I remembered the name Murena – a company that equips Fairphones with de-Googlified Android. As David Pierce writes at The Verge, that requires a huge effort. Murena has built replacements for the standard Google apps, a cloud system for email, calendars, and productivity software. Even so, Pierce writes, apps hit the limit: despite Murena’s effort to preserve user anonymity, it’s just not possible to download them without interacting with Google, especially when payment is required. And who wants to run their phone without third-party apps? Not even me (although I note that many of those I use can still be sideloaded).

The reality is I would have preferred to wait even longer to make the change. I was pushed by the fact that several times recently the Note has complained that it can’t download email because it was running out of storage space (which is why I would prefer to store everything on an external SD card, but: not an option for email and apps). And on a recent trip to the US, there were numerous occasions where the phone simply didn’t work, even though there shouldn’t be any black spots in places like Boston and San Francisco. A friend suggested that in all likelihood there were freuqency bands being turned off while other newer ones were probably ones the Note couldn’t use. I had forgotten that 5G, which I last thought about in 2018, had been arriving. So: new phone. Resentfully.

This kind of forced wastefulness is one of the things Donald Norman talks about in his new book, Design for a Better World. To some extent, the book is a mea culpa: after decades of writing about how to design things better to benefit us as individuals, Norman has recognized the necessity to rethink and replace human-centered design with humanity-centered design. Sustainability is part of that.

Everything around us is driven by design choices. Building unrepairable phones is a choice, and a destructive one, given the amount of rare materials used inside that wind up in landfills instead of, new phones or some other application. The Guardian’s review of the latest Fairphone asks, “Could this be the first phone to last ten years?” I certainly hope so, but if something takes it down before then it will be an externality like switched-off bands, the end of software updates, or a bank’s decision to require customers use an app for two-factor authentication and then update it so older phones can’t run it. These are, as Norman writes, complex systems in which the incentives are all misplaced. And so: new phone. Largely unnecessarily.

Illustrations: Personally owned 1970s AT&T phone.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

8 thoughts on “New phone, who dis?”

  1. Hi,
    I don’t think the access to wifi enable/disable is so bad. My wife has Fairphone 4, Android 13, and in the settings you swipe from the top of the screen, you can have “Internet” and under that there are directly the radio buttons for wifi and mobile data. So it’s not one button, but it’s three touches, which I don’t count as being deep down in menus. If you use it often, you can put it on the top in the swipe-down menu.
    (Not sure of the name on English user interface, this is running in Finnish).

    1. “Wifi calling”, which is a way to shunt normal phone calls onto wifi, is easier to access than turning wifi itself on and off, at least as the phone comes out of the box. I’m not finding it easy to change that.

      ETA: I think I’ve found the shorter route to wifi now. These things take time.

  2. I’ve got a refurbished 2020 iPhone SE, bought last year to replace a refurbished 2016 iPhone SE acquired several years prior. It wasn’t as huge an upgrade as yours, though I do miss the 3.5mm headphone jack from the older iPhone. (I did consider turning it into a tiny iPod touch, but its 16GB capacity would have been a major limitation.) I’ll be keeping its 2020 sibling for as long as it’ll run ā€” the only thing it may need is a replacement battery, and yes I dislike that I can’t do that myself any more. After that? I’ve no idea. Apple would probably to get me onto one of their flagship phones, so I expect the SE line will be discontinued by that point. With luck I can snag another refurbished older iPhone. But then I expect I’ll be faced with even more siren calls to subscribe to various Apple services than I do currently. It might be the lesser of two evils compared to Google Android, but Apple still expect to get their regular pound of flesh.

  3. Congratulations on using the Note for that long ā€“Ā I’ll be following you into the world of a Fairphone at some point (not for a while, as my current phone is only a couple of years old and still going strong). Similarly, I plan ultimately to replace my laptop with a Framework, although again that won’t be for a while.

    If you want to try an app store which uses Google Play as its source but with a little more privacy, you might want to have a look at Aurora Store. This lets you download from Google Play anonymously ā€“ obviously that won’t work for paid apps, but for free ones it at least lets you escape from Google’s merciless attempt to know everything about everyone at all times…

  4. I’ve seen adverts to the Fairphone via my Phone Coop account correspondence, but never looked at its user interface.

    I do have, and am typing this on, a Samsung S22 running Android v13. Even though it only has soft buttons, it still has the same 3 that used to be physical buttons (i.e back, home, & apps-list). They can be set as permanently displayed, or only appear if finger is dragged up from bottom. Also the outside 2 can be swapped over.

    As to WiFi on/off shortcuts, that and other shortcuts are available if you drag down from top of the screen, with a second drag down to give a full set of buttons on a slide left/right paged area. A long-press on the WiFi (or Bluetooth, 4G/5G mobile data, speaker, GPS, and other soft buttons turns it (them) on or off.

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