Agnès Crepet – Head of software longevity & IT at FAIRPHONE

Interview with Agnès Crepet – Fairphone

Walid : Welcome to Projet Libre and it’s with pleasure that today I welcome Agnès Crépet in episode number 4. Florent Cayré, who is one of the founders of the Commown cooperative, strongly encouraged me to contact Agnès because he had told me that she would have exciting things to tell me. She was kind enough to agree to speak in Projets Libres!.

Agnes works at Fairphone, she is the Head of IT and Software Longevity. With her, we’re going to talk about what it means to maintain an operating system and applications over time, and also with relationships with other players in the ecosystem. And if you want to know more about her career then I will put in description the link to the excellent episode of the APRIL podcast, Libre à vous number 180 in which Agnès describes very well her entire career.
Agnes, thank you so much for being with us, I hope you’re doing well today. You told me you were hot.

Agnès : Exactly. In my coworking space, it’s extremely hot.

Agnes’ journey

Walid : But listen, that’s not going to stop us from talking. Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you came to work at Fairphone?

Agnes : Yes, of course. My quick journey: as you said, in Libre à vous I go into a bit of detail about my journey. So I’m not going to do it to you now, but I mainly worked in France until I was 40 years old. I did a fairly traditional study in computer science, starting by doing fairly corporate jobs and then little by little by moving away from corporate formulas, so by launching my own company with friends called Ninja Squad and everything.
But hey, let’s say staying in the French ecosystem, and in 2018 I joined Fairphone, which is in the Netherlands, so it gave me the opportunity to see what it was like from the inside to work for a company that makes a digital, ethical product, let’s say. We’re going to talk about that a lot today, I guess.

And it also gave me the opportunity to have an experience with very different cultures. Getting out of my French-French ecosystem a little bit, so it was also nice. And so I’m still working for this company, 5 years later, in full remote (Editor’s note: complete teleworking), well almost full remote, that is to say that I still go there one week a month to drink coffee with my colleagues, just to keep in touch. I find that sometimes full remote is a bit of a challenge.
So there you have it, my career briefly, and alongside my jobs, since the beginning, so about twenty years, since I started working, and even before, I have always been part of activist, political collectives, around a certain form of digital technology that is more inclusive, freer, more diverse. So I’m part of the founding team of MiXiT, which has a conference in Lyon, which works for more diversity and ethics in tech. I am part of the Duchess France collective, which is a collective that works for more visibility of women tech in tech.

And I also co-founded in Saint-Etienne, the city where I live, a web media, let’s say, called number zero and which is part of the wave of Indie-Media. I also talk about it in Libre à vous, so I’m not going to talk too much about it today. But basically, it’s the whole wave of alternative media that appeared in the late ’90s, early 2000s, which was a form of activism to find an alternative to the mass media. There you go. And it was all online. So, that’s also what made me want to study computer science. So that’s a little bit of my activism outside of my job. But it’s true that since I’ve been working at Fairphone, I’ve kind of aligned the planets on this thing.

The arrival at Fairphone, the beginnings of Fairphone

Walid : For me, the first time I discovered Fairphone was at a conference at FOSDEM in 2016. So how did you end up at Fairphone?

Agnes : I came in as a person who is completely unknown to Fairphone. So I applied for an ad online because I felt like I had a profile that matched the job, and not a recruiter who contacted me and said “we have a great job for you”. First of all, because we don’t have the money to have recruiters, in any case we do it very rarely, punctually, and also because it’s not necessarily in our philosophy. We also want anyone to be able to apply.
So I arrived just because I wanted to have an experience outside France, that’s for sure. And I’ve been wanting to work for a product, ethical, responsible digital company for a long time. So there you have it, there aren’t that many in Europe. So I’ve been following him for a long time, since the awareness campaign he and she did around conflict minerals in 2010-2011. I had followed this project, I had seen the Fairphone 1 and the Fairphone 2 come out.

I arrived 5 years after the beginning of the story, after the beginning of the company, because the company is in 2013: I arrived in 2018. We’ve just celebrated our 10th anniversary, so you see, I’ve arrived at the second half of Fairphone’s life, which is certainly not the most complicated, let’s say. I’m not saying it’s easy to work at Fairphone today, because nothing can be taken for granted. It’s always very complicated, every month you have new problems that come in, you have to solve them, and then you don’t have a financial base that allows you to take risks, even if you take a lot of them.

But that’s nothing compared to the people who did the first 5 years, I think. All humility because these people, they were working on a project that was nascent, or on the first products that were complicated. Fairphone 1 and Fairphone 2 were products whose quality was not exceptional, because we were learning. So so, a lot, a lot of stress, I think, for this team of people over the first 5 years.
I didn’t really know it, I did see some aspects of it when I arrived in 2018 on the first, first 1 or 2 years. And it stabilized a little bit when we released the Fairphone 3. It’s still a much better quality product, which shows that, after a while, we were still able to make very decent phones. I’m a bit ourselves, but we don’t really hide it from each other and it’s important not to hide it too. From where we are, from where we started.

Fairphone is also a success by users, users who supported this crazy project to make an ethical phone by having technical problems on the first opuses. That is to say, in fact there are people who used the Fairphone 2 with big problems but who were happy to use it because they were participating in a different project. So that’s something to emphasize, the importance of the community on this kind of project.

Walid : Had you already worked with equipment or was it something new for you?

Agnes : No, no, it was completely new and I didn’t know anything about Android when I arrived. So if you want, I still had some steps to climb. I was a back-end developer, I was doing back-end. So I came a little bit from afar, after that I had done a little bit of project management, things like that, team, more than project by the way.
Yes, I was still on a very different technical stack. I had done a little bit of Linux at the very beginning of my career, C development, so that helped. Because today, it’s true that it’s still…

We do that, part of my team does that. But it’s true that it was still a great challenge when I arrived. I had very little electronics skills, so there you have it. Everything about Qualcomm processors, etc., I had to learn a lot of tricks. It’s better now, but I have to admit that the first few months have been very busy.

Fairphone’s mission

Walid : If I go back to Fairphone, the company in general, can you just describe what is the goal you are trying to achieve?

Agnès : The company’s mission is to change the electronics industry to make it more responsible, to make sure that we no longer hide our faces to the abuses committed in the construction of telephones, social or environmental abuses. And to make sure that we change the industry to be better, and that people are paid more in the supply chain and that the phone lasts longer to avoid too much e-waste. I’m keeping it short, but it’s still the main focus of Fairphone and in that sense it’s true that it’s a rather unique project because our KPIs, for example, performance indicators, are not only based on financial profitability, but also on all the areas of impact that I mentioned a little.
So, are there a lot of people who benefit from our social programs in terms of salary? Are there any fair materials included in the phone? Do we recycle as we claim to do? We have a lot of performance indicators that exist and that allow us to follow the success criteria we set for ourselves. Of course, these success criteria are not only financial.

But finance is also important because you’re not an NGO. We are a company, even if we are a social enterprise: it is a status somewhat similar to the SCOP in France. The Netherlands calls it Social Enterprise, but it’s similar to SCOP. We’re in the Netherlands, so they’re capitalists, they’re absolute liberals, so it’s still less classy than SCOPs, I’d say. But still, it looks a bit like it, with the fact that it doesn’t only include the financial profitability of the company. It is important that we aim for financial profitability because if we want to influence the electronics industry, we have to show that this project is viable. We need to show Samsung and others that if you make phones by paying living wages, decent incomes to the people who assemble the phone, it’s possible. You’re going to get there, you’re not going to put your box at risk. So all of that is important to us as well.

Agnes’ team and its missions

Walid : If I take your team now, how many people are you? What is the scope of your different missions?

Agnes : My team, you’re just talking about my team.

Walid : yes, your team.

Agnes : So I have about fifteen engineers, well, people in my team. I have two-thirds of them on the non-exotic, let’s say pure IT: Dev, Backend, Kotlin, Spring or things much less exotic than implementing an ERP. When I arrived in the company, if you will, there wasn’t all the IT stack that you find in classic boxes. So there was no finance software, no helpdesk, nothing to manage inventory and all that. So we had to put solutions in place, which don’t excite me that much,
But what you have to do to scale: ERP and company. We changed webshops last week.
Finally there you have it, we’re cleaning up the IT technical stack.
I also have developers who work on everything that is very specific data collection to do analytics on the KPIs that we claim to be tracking. So typically, we swallow all the data that comes from factories, that comes from repair centers to do analytics on what is breaking the most, where we need to improve, what we call field failure rates, failure rates in the field.

So when your phone is shipped, it’s hardware, so it’s complicated. You can’t do an update easily, well, a software update, you can’t solve everything, especially the hardware. And so we track all the errors, hardware and software, thanks to the fact that the phone can go back to a repair center. So we’re following all of that. And all these are technical solutions to be put in place. I have people who do that in my house.

And I’ve got a third of the team that’s really working on everything that’s software longevity of the phone, how to combat Android phone obsolescence. So here, it’s really more embedded development people. I have a full-time person on the Linux kernel, there you go, things like that that require skills that are quite specific, a bit niche. Because if I’m talking about the Linux kernel, for example, today there’s no one who does a lot of Linux kernel upgrades on an Android phone stack.

The industry is made in the Android stack. Basically, you ship your phone with one version of Android, you do, go, at worst, one or two versions, one or two upgrades, and that’s it. You don’t even have to touch your core. But if we want to do 5, 6, 7, 8 years of software support, at some point we have to update the Linux kernel or find similar solutions. All of this requires some pretty specific skills, mainlining, upstream Linux, kernel, things like that.

And so, I’ve got a full-time person on that in that little third. I was talking to you, a third, that is to say five people: we are not a team of 100 engineers. Fairphone has 140 or 150 people today, so I manage the 10% in charge of the technical software stack.

Make your own version of Android with long-term support

Walid : If I take the Android part, how do you go about making your own version of Android for Fairphone? What does it mean, roughly, schematically, the different stages?

Agnes : We try to stay as close as possible to vanilla Android, so to stock Android, i.e. the normal Android delivered by Google. But of course it’s not possible, well, let’s say it’s not possible. Of course, there are differences between what Google delivers and what you’re going to get on your phone. You have differences that are related to the hardware, in fact, the components that you have chosen as a phone manufacturer. And then you have differences that are more about the high stack, which will, for example, affect apps or things like that, in terms of what your network operators ask of you: Orange, Vodafone, Dutch Telecom and company. Fairphone customization is about things that are not necessarily seen by the end-user user, unless the operator wants to deliver particular apps. But if you ever squeeze this exception on operators, what we do is always as close as possible to what Android is, to what the Android version that we implement is.

Walid : So we’re talking about the AOSP (Android Open Source Project)?

Agnes : Yes. So, we’re going to say in Android, if I ever go back to the basics a little bit, you’ve got multiple layers. You have the Linux kernel: Android runs on a Linux kernel. You have what’s called the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL), so that’s really all that sticks to your hardware, I’ll come back to that. Everything Android Runtime, native libraries, graphics, etc.

You’ve got the Android Framework and you’ve got the apps. And in all these layers, you have closed source and open source.

In everything I’ve just said, there’s a part called AOSP, which is called the Android Open Source Project, and it basically touches on the open source core of Android.

Walid : But what does that mean? Does that mean there’s a lot of closed source?

Agnes : Typically, the whole HAL part, the HAL implementation, it’s not open source. You have the interface which is open source but the implementation is not, that’s what will allow you to adapt, to run your Android on particular processors that are the ones you have chosen in relation to the design of your phone. And so here, we’re talking about proprietary code, we’re talking about what’s going to run on the second processors, the modem part, etc.

And typically, we’re potentially talking about Qualcomm code for us, since we have a Qualcomm processor. But we can also talk about other types of firmware, everything that is camera firmware, fingerprint sensor, well, that’s it. In your podcast notes, I’d put you An article that has been written by academics recently, which I like, which explains how complicated it is to actually maintain a product that runs on a processor, especially when it’s mobility, because you have a lot of firmware that you don’t necessarily control. Android is controllable because the core is open source, what you call AOSP, okay? But there are many other bits of code that are very complicated to master and that are at the origin of some obsolescence.

Typically, we just rollout Android 13 on Fairphone 3. Fairphone 3 was released in 2019 with Android 9. So you see it’s cool, we’ve done a lot of upgrades. And you see, a less cool thing is that the fingerprint sensor, we had a drop (Editor’s note: abandonment) of the manufacturer’s support, so no more firmware. And that’s typically, we’re stuck. We have Android 13 books, we have Android, Google, etc.
But this fingerprint sensor no longer has a firmware update. So that means that everything that’s Android checks that. In Android, you have a spec that says, well, your sensor, if it meets these requirements, it has an OK security level, a low security level, a strong security level, etc. And before, we had the level strong, and we had to move to the level below. Because we hadn’t been able to update the firmware of this… I’m being a bit long, but you’ll understand that this answers your question.

We had to go to the next level because we didn’t have the firmware update for this Fingerprint Sensor. We still have Android certification, but it means that concretely, for the end user, she will have to in fact, typically, no longer use the fingerprint sensor to make this transaction in the bank and use a PIN, password or whatever you want.

Typically, the fact of potentially losing control of certain firmware, even if you make a phone that lasts over time, software that lasts over time, even if you control your chip, I’ll talk at length about the chip later if you want, your processor sorry. There are bits of code that are complicated to keep under control and typically that kind of stuff.

Long-term software on a phone potentially means compromises for the end user, for the end consumer. It’s not necessarily easy to explain commercially or in terms of marketing to a customer that in fact he gains long-term support but he loses features that he had at the beginning. Potentially it can lose features exactly. You see, we have an audience that is aware of that, we come from the Fairphone 2, earlier I was telling you about the Fairphone 2 which was an average quality phone, a lot of hardware issues where people still supported us. It’s true that on the Fairphone 3 we broadened our user base a bit and suddenly people were a little more demanding, and that became even more true on the Fairphone 4.
Well yes it’s super annoying. There you connect to the Fairphone forum, you look at the Android 13 upgrade we did last week, you have a lot of people screaming about these kinds of fingerprints. We weren’t very good at communication before the upgrade, release notes, etc. We wallowed on something for a few days, we were able to say the thing a little late, we’re not perfect.
But yes, but it’s downright complicated. Obviously, we want to improve, and typically, what I want to do is the fingerprint sensor of our latest phone. We absolutely have to convince them to sign for 8 years. Even if they’re not used to it, even if they don’t know how to do it, we don’t care, we have to keep in touch with them as long as possible. All the explanation that Fairphone is used to doing about fair materials, so the metals that we include in our supply chain that are conflict free, that respect working conditions, that don’t have children, all that. We know it’s a long day and that out of 50 metals, at the moment, we’re only at 15.

Somewhere, on the body, the technical stack of our phone, we’re at the same point. That is to say, we are trying, in quotation marks, to make our way to have something more ethical, more responsible to make long-term work, but it’s a path. You can’t win on every aspect. I’m very happy with what we’re doing today with Qualcomm for example, it’s much better than a few years ago. I really hope that we will continue to have a strong partnership so that we can really have modem support, Qualcomm support until the end. But in other aspects, it’s not easy, the fingerprint sensor is a real failure on the Fairphone 3.

Provide long-term support without losing functionality

Walid : This team, which is not a very big team, from what I understand, maybe half-heartedly, a good part of your time you spend working on existing equipment to make it last as long as possible. That must keep you busy a lot of the time, right? On the really Android part, I’m talking.

Agnes : On the Android side, new products, recent products are managed by what we call an ODM. So the ODM is actually your factory. It’s the box that assembles the phones. So that’s basically the ones who do both the hardware and the software. ODM stands for Original Design Manufacturer: the assembly plant in China. And so the ODM often does the first Android upgrade and then we take over in-house (Editor’s note: internally) whatever, we in-source the developments with the team I’m talking about, that I manage. And by definition, obviously we’re more focused on products that have already been released, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t work on products that are going to be released. Typically the fingerprint sensor, if I ever look back a little on why we are where we are today, it’s typically that at the time we weren’t us in my team enough… Me, come on, I assume, I take ownership (Editor’s note: I take responsibility) on the mistake there. Maybe I wasn’t vigilant enough at the time when we designed the Fairphone 3 to secure the agreement with the manufacturer of the fingerprint sensor, to make sure that they would commit to us over 7 or 8 years. At the time, because I could do it… Anyway, the phone came out in 2019, I arrived at the end of 2018, so we must have missed it there.
But basically, my team is also included in the early stages of designing the phones to come to ensure just that kind of stuff. All the software architecture of Android, here I made you the layers quickly there, it’s really essential that we audit the code in fact, that it comes out of the ODM, to avoid making sure that the code is rotten, because we’re the ones who will do the maintenance behind it.

So we do audits, we tell them it’s not okay, we have to do it like that. All the changes to Android that Google has been pushing for some time are pretty good, rather designed for longevity, Treble, GSI, all that we can talk about if you want. Well, all this stuff, the factories in China, I’m not going to be racist or discriminatory, but not all of them are very strict, we don’t work with the biggest factories. When we talk to them about the new features of Android to ensure longevity, so GSI, Treble, sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t, so we have to be vigilant about it to make sure that if in three years we have to do a kernel upgrade, we have to do a new update in a year outside of ourselves, It is possible and we don’t have to spend too much time doing it. We also need to optimize the dev time that will be needed to make these future upgrades.

So we’re more and more involved, my team, on future products, but it’s true that a big part of our daily life is to make the products that have already been released last. We just finished support for the Fairphone 2 last March. We’d been working on it for 7 years and 3 months. So, the Fairphone 2, for us, even last year, was the bulk of our daily lives. A phone that was already, at the time, last year, 6 years old. So, a lot of money, a lot of time, for zero return on investment, since somewhere, the phone was already sold, it wasn’t even sold anymore. So these are things that are actually complicated to master within a company like Fairphone, which is not very big. It’s always hard to estimate how much long-term software support will cost.

Lessons learned from the Fairphone 2

Walid : We were talking about the Fairphone 2, what is your feedback both in terms of hardware and software? What are the great things you learned with the Fairphone 2 that allowed you to make the Fairphone 3 and after the Fairphone 4?

Agnes : In terms of hardware, we learned a lot about modularity. At Fairphone, we do what we call a life cycle analysis, so what the phone will cost from an environmental point of view, over all the stages of the phone’s life, its production, its use and its end of life. And in fact, on the Fairphone 2, compared to the Fairphone 3 and the Fairphone 4, we were much worse on the Fairphone 2 in terms of the additional environmental cost related to modularity.

That is to say, we did modularity on the Fairphone 2, but that somehow, what it cost on the whole production, there is 80% of the environmental cost of the phones that are related to the production of the phone, and in fact, the fact of making a modular design, it can cost you more in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and so on when you design this kind of phone: on the Fairphone 4, if I say no, the extra cost of making a modular design is 1%, on the Fairphone 3 it was 3%, on the Fairphone 2 it should be 12%, 12-13%. So we got better at that, since we didn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot, we didn’t want to say “that’s cool, we’re making a modular phone, but look, it’s 12% more expensive in terms of environmental cost”. Because you see, the cost of having special components etc, an assembly of special components can actually have an impact on the footprint, the CO2, all that. We improved a lot on that, it was a big focus point we had.

On the part, well a little less important, but still, the way of assembling, on the modularity still, the way of assembling the components. On Fairphone 2, you had a screen clip there, we said to ourselves “oh that’s so cool, we’re not going to put two screws, we’re going to make a screen clip and suddenly it’s so good, people will find it very accessible because as soon as you take a turn of the screw, it’s already a little bit already, You’re losing people.” Cool. On the other hand, the fact of making these clips, and of course the time, there was a bit of play that was created and suddenly your screen tended to detach from the rest of the phone. So it’s not great. Because you had some pretty significant defections on that.
Big mistake on the bottom module, the bottom module, which really has an incredible failure rate that cost us a lot of money, because the phone was under warranty, even being under warranty there were a lot of defects. So materially speaking, we changed completely between the Fairphone 2 and the Fairphone 3. On the Fairphone 2 we didn’t have any operator validation, I didn’t have time to tell you about it, but beyond the Google Android approval, when you make an Android phone, with each software release, you also need an approval from the operators, Orange, SFR, whatever you want. We didn’t really have those approvals on the Fairphone 2 because we didn’t have a deal with the operators except for the Fairphone 3 with Orange.
On the Fairphone 3, we really on-boarded a lot of operators because we told ourselves that if we weren’t with the operators, it’s complicated for people to know us.
Not that people buy from operators all the time, but in any case you had to be tidy up with them. To be tidy up with them, you have to do some technical tests as a patient. You have drop test operators, so you see your phone that falls and doesn’t break, it can be 1 meter, with operators it goes up to 1.30 meters.

So for us, the Fairphone 3 which has been stored (editor’s note: put in the range) by many operators, it was a big tech job in terms of hardware to have something robust despite being modular. I’m not telling you a challenge… And on the Fairphone 4, we improved a lot on the waterproof side, dust resistance, a lot of aspects where we needed to get better.

So the Fairphone 4 is a very, very good phone in terms of hardware. The camera too, lots of camera improvements. The camera on the Fairphone 2, well, the camera on the Fairphone 3, so so. And the camera on the Fairphone 4, it’s cool. Of course it could be even better. I think those are the next products we’re going to release. The camera is a big big subject. Me, I have friends around me who bought a Fairphone, numbers above the Fairphone 2, I’m not going to name which one, because I don’t know, I don’t remember, who sent the phone back because the camera (it was people crazy about iPhones who tripped, on the ethical model of the Fairphone) but the camera was a sticking point. So the Fairphone 4 has a very good camera, but it’s true that to compare to Apple, it’s always complicated.

On the other hand, today we can be similar to good Samsungs. So it’s already not bad, but we still need to improve on it. So there you have it, hardware for sure.

Walid : And in terms of software, what did we learn with the Fairphone 2?

Agnes : We’ve learned a lot about software obsolescence. Everything I’ve described to you, you see, I’ve told you about all the crap we have on the fingerprint sensor of the Fairphone 3, so we’re still learning. On the Fairphone 2 we had quite strong software problems, which also had an impact on the consumer.

But we did a cool thing on the Fairphone 2, we did Fairphone Open OS, I think that’s part of your questions, but we’ll talk about it a little bit more. But that was cool, we learned a lot about the Fairphone 2. What we didn’t have on the Fairphone 1 but which already existed. The whole open source stack, how to open source Android properly. We’ve learned a lot about that.

Feedback on Fairphone Open OS

Walid : That was one of my questions actually. The Fairphone Open OS, why did you do it? Why did you stop it? What did you actually learn from this experiment, from this version of Android?

Agnes : So why did we do it? Because anyway, first of all, it’s in line with our ethics. If you can’t open it, you can’t control it. That was the quote that was always quoted from one of the founders of Fairphone, who always cited the example of why he decided to get into Fairphone, to launch the Fairphone project. He kept citing the example of his son who had a broken console. He couldn’t open that fucking console because everything was proprietary and all that. And the person says, “yes, I didn’t want that actually. I wanted to try to work on a different product that is open, that you can fix yourself, that you can change the screen if you break it yourself, etc. At a lower cost. Well, somewhere you can apply it to software, this stuff. If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

So here, opening up the software stack so that people can take ownership of the software, ethically speaking, politically speaking, is essential for us. It still is, even if my dad isn’t going to build the Android software himself, with all due respect to him. I know that my aunt Ginette, who lives in Haute-Loire, who is 83 years old, I don’t think she does, but it doesn’t matter, ethically speaking, it’s important.

And then, the interest we saw in making an open source version: you also had the privacy side, less tracking, we’ll talk about /e/, because obviously it helped /e/, Lineage, PostMarketOS, CalixOS. There are other communities that were able to help us in fact afterwards. And the fact that we made our own OS at some point, it also allowed us to talk to these communities in a more serious way. And the third aspect is the longevity aspect. That is, planting seeds, opening up your code, and having people who care about what you’re doing, the LineageOS community that continues to keep the phone going. Even if you don’t do it anymore, like the Fairphone 2: we stopped Android 10, Android 11 is available on Lineage. This is very positive from a longevity point of view. That is to say, in fact, you give communities to build their own OS and then you can have a decent solution for users who want to continue using their device, even when you drop the software.

And, just as coolly, you can also cherry-pick parts of code that the community has made in your Android stock.

Walid : Ah, that’s what I’m interested in too.

Agnès : In the Android you’re making, you know. And that’s what we did, on the Fairphone 2, that’s what we did.

Relationships with free communities (LineageOS, etc.)

Walid : Earlier, you said that you have firmware, you have parts that are provided by manufacturers that are not free. But if you’re doing your own 100% open source implementation of Android, do you have to replace that?

Agnes : yes, you have a lot of open source drivers. If I’m talking about graphics drivers and all that, obviously, you have things that exist. So we took a lot of inspiration from Lineage, from those famous open source versions of Android. Lineage is a fork of Android, based on Android. So for us, it’s the opposite of Ubuntu Touch or PostMarketOS which are no longer based on Android, where it’s a little further away, let’s say.

The technical stack, LineageOS, is really based on Android, so for us it was still “convenient” to be able to draw inspiration from what they did. There are some parts that won’t be solvent by the open source community. So anything that’s pure close source, especially around the modem or things like that, there’s stuff that’s not solvent.

So typically, what communities do like that, they get binaries (Editor’s note: binaries) of these bits of code, firmware that revolves around the modem and they don’t touch the thing. But they’re not too bothered in time because they don’t have an Android certificate to pass. You see? In fact, every time we ship a release in the field, Google certifies our Android. So you have 500,000 tests to take or even more now. This is called CTS. So it’s up to Google’s approval. And among those tests, you have the security tests that are actually going to check whether it’s secure or not, which is what you’ve done.

And obviously, you have more and more tests that will look at what happens on the close source components (editor’s note: the proprietary components) that belong to the chipset. So for us, Qualcomm. And basically, if something is missing, the test is red and you don’t have the certificate… I’m caricaturing, but that’s kind of it, even if you can ask for exceptional processes. LineageOS, they don’t have that thing. They’re not going to get their Android certified by Google.

It’s a bit… It’s the antithesis of what they want to do. So if you want, they’re a little bit freer to do… And it’s the same for /e/, they’re a little bit freer to do whatever they want. And we, on Fairphone OS, were the same thing. We didn’t have that thing. We did both. We didn’t just do Fairphone OS at the time of Fairphone 2, we always made a stock Fairphone OS, so an OS certified by Google. The fact that we had Fairphone Open next door still allowed us to have a little bit of freedom. And the things that we took from the Lineage OS community, basically you had certain drivers, but also the kernel, this famous kernel that I was talking about earlier, there are things that are done at the community level that we also relied on. And also small fixed issues (Editor’s note: fixed problems). There are patches that we used Lineage for everything that is fixed Issue, User Facing Issues, issues that were a bit annoying for the user. We got those patches.
That’s the magic of open source. There are elements that we were able to rely on to make the last upgrades in time of the Fairphone 2, the 9 and the 10.

Walid : And the Fairphone OpenOS, how long did you develop it?
Agnes: Until the end of Fairphone 2.

Walid : Oh okay!

Agnès : We’ve never done it for the Fairphone 3 or the Fairphone 4. So the open source stack of Fairphone 2 was available, but then on the Fairphone 3, we decided to do another strategy because the thing is that we keep the open source, the fact of open sourcing, etc. We continue to do that.
We can be a bit long on the latest products by the way, but in general we try to publish as much as we can. But on the other hand, in terms of the availability of a real OS for end users, Fairphone Open wasn’t crazy either. You didn’t have a lot of default apps that allow the person who installs the OS to have an app ready right away, etc.

It can be useful for people who are a bit far from the technical side. We didn’t have that in Fairphone Open. So, after thinking about it, and then it takes time to make your own OS. So, on second thought, I told you, we had five people, at the time, I must have even had one less. We chose instead to facilitate the work of open source communities, perhaps as close as possible to them, let’s say, so that they can launch their own OS and that there are real alternatives available for people who want to switch from a stock Android to an alternative Android.

We’re even going to put an option on our website, our online webshop there, where you’ll be able to choose between /e/OS and the stock Android. So you can even, you can even buy a Fairphone 4 with /e/OS directly flashed on it. You can already do this at their place, if you go to their Murena webshop, you can already buy a pre-flashed Fairphone 4. But always to go in the direction of making it easier for end users to adhere to this kind of /e/OS alternative that may, at first glance, put some people off, because it seems difficult.
Flashing is always a complicated thing for people. It’s always hard to say “what the fuck am I supposed to do here? I have to unlock my bootloader, then I have to install this, oh my god, that’s it, I’ll keep”.
But I think I can understand, I don’t blame anybody for that. So having something ready, a pre-flashed phone, it can remove barriers for a lot of people to take the step of using these OS.

Collaboration with /e/OS (Murena)

Walid : so if we go back to /e/OS, what we didn’t say is that /e/OS is a version of Android that was created by Gaël Duval, so who is a Frenchman who is known to have done a long time ago MandrakeSoft, thus one of the first Linux distributions to be user-friendly. How did you meet, I was going to say, and how did you start working with them on this OS, which is therefore more focused on privacy?

Agnes : Gaël, I met him at a conference in Belgium in 2019, 2020, I don’t know anymore. He had already tried to meet in contact with people from Fairphone, well anyway. And so we said to ourselves, let’s try to make a partnership a little stronger to have this alternative. Since they are based on LineageOS, it also made sense to be able to go a little further in this perspective. And after that, we just continued the partnership. So we started in 2020, we’re in 2023, we just launched Fairphone 4 in the US with /e/. That’s it, let’s continue that.
Personally, I’d also like to try to work on everything Linux-based OS, to get out of the Android stack. I really like an OS called PostMarketOS, which is Linux-based but not feature complete.

You flash PostMarketOS on your Fairphone, the camera doesn’t work, there are things to do. But, for the future, I’m also a big believer in Linux Based OS. We also have a link with Ubuntu Touch, which has come back to life thanks to UBports, it’s a German foundation. We’re also in contact with them, to try to see what we can do on the pure Linux stack.

Walid : What’s the first feedback on Fairphone + /e/?

Agnes : At Commown, you received Florent not long ago, at Commown it’s 25% of their lease. All the phones they rent, you have 25% of people choosing /e/OS. And we, at the moment, /e/ – Murena, that’s the name of their brand behind it, Murena is a partner who buys us phones in the end and flashes the thing, their OS. Right now, it’s not on our webshop yet, so right now they’re buying 4 phones, they’re flashing 4 phones, they’re putting them up for sale on their website.

And so they buy us phones. Contractually, they buy phones every month. In terms of sell-in, sell-out, it is our number 5 partner in Europe. So I don’t know if you see, they’re the 5th European partner we have. So that’s huge. They sold about the same number of phones that Orange bought from us last year. I wouldn’t have thought. To give a comparison, so Orange 500 stores in France, which also certainly make efforts to highlight Fairphone and, well, drown in the middle of many other devices, what, you know.
I can’t tell you the number of phones by heart, but I remember that comparison. /e/ has sold so much in Europe, eh, we’re touting in Europe and… So we’ll see about the US, we just launched in the US on July 5th, so it’s a bit too recent to say where we’re at. Basically, /e/ – Murena sold as many Fairphone 3 and Fairphone 4 in 2022 as Orange. That’s pretty impressive.

Walid: That’s crazy! Having used /e/ – Murena for more than 6 months, my feedback is that you have a little bit of the best of both worlds. You don’t have the whole Google stack. And so actually, I’m using it for example on an old phone from 2015 that came back to life thanks to this. It’s still pretty cool and at the same time on my everyday phone using MicroG and app stores, you can have all the apps from the Android Store more than F-Droid well, you have everything, in fact, it’s really usable every day, which is what I find really nice.

Agnes : Of course, for the ease of use, it’s still nice, that’s for sure, there’s no picture.

Relations with the Commown Co-op and Aircraft Leasing

Walid : There are two subjects I wanted to address, the first is a little sentence that Florent Cayré said to me when we talked a little bit about Comtown’s business model and that I wanted to ask you. He told us “in fact, what interests us is also to encourage players like Fairphone to work on the subject of renting and so for that we regularly give them money for the use of the phones”. In fact, in the end, the more phones there are in circulation at home, the more interesting it is for you in the long run.

Agnes : yes, definitely. After that, I don’t know the approval in detail. I don’t take care of the commercial part. My sales colleague is managing this with Commown. So surely, if Florent says it, it’s probably going to be true. But you see, I wasn’t even aware of it. But beyond the financial aspect, what I find great about what we’re doing with Commown is the European lobbying around… Because for me, they’re at the top, for me, people like Common, they’re people who are the pioneers of responsible electronics, who are very radical in a good way, and who are going to push users to really change their behavior. Fairphone as well, obviously, since we want to try to make sure that people understand how phones are made, how problematic it is and why it’s important that they keep their phone and not buy one every year, that’s for sure. So we’re in the same logic, but they’re still, let’s say, experimenting with even more complicated things that I find even more interesting for the circular economy.

For me, the ultimate solution, the one that makes the most sense from a circular economy point of view, since they’re the ones who take on the issue of repair, end of life, all that, you know, which really facilitates the fact that the person can keep their phone for a long time. So that’s really cool what they do and that’s what I’m interested in working with people like Commown. We have exactly the same goal, that’s why we set up Fair TEC, this collective around the…

Walid : We can talk about it, huh. That was my next question. Perfect transition.

The Fair TEC Collective

Agnes : So Fair TEC is a collective that we set up with Common, but also with MVNOs, alternative operators such as Telecoop in France, YourCoopMobile in the UK, WEtell in Germany, etc. and /e/ – Murena, the OS I just told you about.

The objective of doing TEC was to make people aware of a more responsible digital technology, more responsible mobile solutions, and that somehow, the perfect offer from this point of view would be to have responsible hardware like a Fairphone with an alternative OS like /e/, potentially that you rent via Commown and with a SIM card from an operator like Telecoop that doesn’t push you to consume data. The objective of this collective was to show, to raise awareness among the general public on the ecological, social and privacy impacts of digital technology, so we raise awareness and show that there are solutions.

We show that through what we do, and potentially also what others are doing, that there are possible solutions. When we speak at conferences with people like Adrien from Commown, for example, we obviously don’t stop to talk about our own solutions. I often talk about other solutions, the Framework laptops, that’s everything that goes in the direction of the sustainability of solutions, technical products, responsible electronics. So it’s really nice to be able to work with people like that. So this partnership is only meant to last.
With Adrien Montagut, the other co-founder of Commown, we were also very involved in the definition of the future sustainability index at the French level. So there you have it, all this lobbying is essential. It’s thanks to partners like this that we can do it.

Hardware longevity at Fairphone

Walid : You, in your title, there is the notion of longevity but software, I wanted to know if you had colleagues who had the same title but for material longevity?

Agnes : They don’t have the title there, but they have that angle. One thing we want to do at Fairphone is anyway to have more people on longevity in general because there’s the hardware part, for the software we’re going to say it’s covered, but there’s the hardware part, there’s also the support part somewhere: how do you go about it, To make sure that the person if they keep their phone for 7-8 years, they have everything that goes around it in terms of service, that they can be accompanied on the optimization of the use of their phone, to make sure that they use their battery well, so we want to optimize all of that.
There are areas that were not yet covered much at Fairphone and that we will cover more and more. We have also launched our rental offer in the Netherlands, Fairphone Easy. So it’s also part of supporting users on keeping their phones. All these are things that little by little, we run a little more.

And there are people who take care of that. They don’t have the title Longevity in their role, but it’s part of their responsibility.

Walid : So I don’t know all of everyone’s jobs, but this is the first time I’ve seen a title in IT with “Longevity” written in the title of the person.

Agnes : I admit that I was the one who pushed him. When I saw what I was doing at Fairfun, etc., I didn’t want to be Head of Software, etc., I said we have to put this in, obviously it wasn’t a problem at Fairphone, but strategically speaking, I think it was essential to put it, because it arouses a lot of curiosity, by the way. Every time, I have the question, when I am interviewed by journalists, every time I have the question, but what does it mean?
At first, I wanted to shoot it more on the fight against obsolescence, and actually, it’s a bit negative. Turning it on longevity, I thought it was nicer.


Walid : We’re coming to the end of the interview. I would like to give you an op-ed. Do you have a particular message for those who either want to work on these subjects or who are going to use phones?

Agnes : Okay, thank you. That’s the trick question.

Walid : yes, that’s the trick question.

Agnes : yes, so what I would tend to say is that you see if I go a little bit off the Fairphone spectrum, somewhere what we’re trying to do, when I talk in some conferences about this, I try to say that we have to be able to make people aware of adopting more responsible consumption patterns. All right? And what does that mean, more ethics and more responsible aspects in the digital sphere? For me, it goes through several angles. So that’s the beginning of my op-ed.
The first angle is to achieve more sobriety, so make sure that you discipline yourself on the fact that you don’t buy electronic products, and I’m not just talking about smartphones, but all the hype about IoT, etc. You see the stuff even about connected agriculture, stuff like that, like it’s great, I have a greenhouse at home, on my balcony it’s all connected, I see in real time if I’m running out of nutrients, etc. In fact, you can also just have a greenhouse, without putting electronics in it or sensors or whatever. So for me, the sobriety of uses, it goes through an awareness of what it can cost and suddenly it goes through the fact of reasoning about our own delusions that we may have. Especially tech people, geeks who like to geek everywhere and having a connected greenhouse is so good. Well yes at the same time it’s so good, it shows a model that asks questions, let’s say, that’s what I mean.

So sobriety. For me, sobriety of use, sobriety of consumption, buying less, buying better, it’s important. Then, there is a second lack that seems important to me, which is everything that is repairable and maintenance. So if you ever want to be more sober, then you have to make your devices last, so obviously you have to be careful what you buy, but once you’ve bought, you have to get started. That is to say, basically, it never makes you dream of repairing something at the beginning, maybe, or it makes some people dream, that’s cool, but there are plenty of them, it freaks them out a little, that’s it. Or if you have the impression, among listeners, that you are pretty good at tech, well try to promote it to your circle of friends, family.

There’s always the joke of “oh Sunday I’m going to eat at my aunt Ginette’s, she’s still asking me to fix her computer, it sucks”, well yes but at the same time, it’s cool to fix the computer the next Sunday. There’s a social role in that, and then, your Aunt Ginette, you can tell her to maybe go to the local Repair Café, try to promote these mutual aid approaches, which actually exist, somewhere to the general public, it’s still to be developed, but here’s the thing, if you have the impression, listeners, that you have knowledge in this area, go and give them to others, that’s it, and beyond your aunt Ginette, maybe go to local Repair Centers or if they don’t exist, set them up. Because I think we need to enter the era of maintenance.

Secondly, repairability and maintenance, I think it also pushes us technicians to enter that era, to enjoy doing this and to see how we can help less technical people repair and maintain their devices. And also, when I was in engineering school and all that, or when I left engineering school, there was always this thing of “oh thing, I’m going to do high-tech stuff, technological novelties, I’m going to a conference there, I’ve got a new framework coming out, it’s so good”

What if the best thing was to work on application maintenance? My second job was in what was called an IT services company at the time, now an IT services company, and in fact the punishment was to do application maintenance. It’s like “oh fuck, I got the shitty plan, I’m going to do a 3-month mission in Dijon, application maintenance, well Dijon ok, why not, I don’t know, I don’t know Dijon, I don’t know, I can’t judge the city, but, yes at home it can be boring, but doing application maintenance was the highlight of the thing, It’s like really.
Well yes, but at the same time we could try to reverse the trend, and show that it can be cool to do application maintenance, if the goal is to make the product behind the software on which you are going to do this maintenance last, so we have to get into this lot of maintenance. Why would it be the most dreamy thing to do is to move towards new techno? There you go.

And finally, the third angle, for more ethics in tech and all that, is techno-discernment. So you see the example of the connected greenhouse, it’s a bit like sobriety, but when I told you, yes, you can have friends who have a blast on their connected greenhouse, on their balcony and all that. But more generally speaking, I think that when you have a technician’s position, in what a priori the audience you have today on your podcast, we have to show techno-discernment. I’m not telling you that we should throw away tech, but that techno-solutionism is not the miracle solution to all problems. There are societal and ecological problems that are not going to be solved by tech. And I think that as a technician, you have to take ownership of that angle and defend that approach. You have to get out of the game when you don’t have a role to play.

The fact that we don’t care, we take electric cars and suddenly it will solve all the environmental problems because there are no carbon emissions, it’s bullshit. Electric cars, even if I know people who have them around me, the cost of producing electric cars, if you take a big electric car, it’s problematic, the cost of batteries is problematic, the environmental price of batteries is obviously societal. So I’m not saying we don’t need a car anymore, but why not?

But if I ever give you an example that is a little less contentious or more complicated to explain than electric cars, I’m going to talk to you about national education. A year ago, I was asked to do a keynote for national education on ethical tech and all that. And these were people who were, I don’t know any terms in national education, but let’s say digital trainers, digital representatives in academies, in short. And so pretty tech-savvy people, okay? And it was quite an interesting conference, it was put together by one of the co-founders of Framasoft. So the angle was how to use free software, how to use free software in national education. So great, I sign, of course I’m going, I’m doing my keynote, all that, too well. But somehow, if you take a step back and you don’t see only the angle of free software when you’re a librist and all that. Somewhere, as a technician, as a librarian, whatever you want, the idea might also be to say that maybe we need to rethink the head in education. I’m repeating myself a bit, I often say it in conferences, but the fact of putting tablets in excess in all schools, tablets that… We’re not talking about the maintenance of these fucking tablets, they sometimes stay in cupboards because the teachers aren’t trained. And as a result, it’s a huge cost. A tablet is expensive. You put 25 in a school of 200 students, that’s a budget after all, even if it doesn’t seem like much. It’s still a budget. The environmental cost, the budgetary cost of these tablets is still real.

Well, instead of doing all that, you put more teachers in and paid them better. Well, you see, I’m caricaturing a bit, but I mean, it’s a real question actually, and that we, as technicians, get asked a lot about it. What do you think about that? At times, in fact, we shouldn’t be afraid to say that it’s only good for these problems, maybe it won’t be up to us to solve them.

You see, it’s not going to be up to us to solve societal problems, some societal problems. Putting tablets and ultra-connected stuff in hospitals is not going to solve the problem of hospitals. The problem with hospitals is a lack of staff. That’s the problem. So for me it’s political.

The head is political. If it is not yet, it needs to be politicized a little better. A little more techno-discernment would do good. Nice last word Walid? Are you okay with that?


Walid : yes, nice last word, I would say that I totally agree with what you just said. Thank you very much Agnès for taking the time to talk with me about these topics.

It’s exciting, especially for someone like me who likes Fairphone and follows a little bit of what you’re doing. I had a lot of questions that I really wanted to ask and I got some pretty interesting answers, I’m thinking about the market share of /e/ for example. So it’s not that I’m blown away, but I thought it was a geek thing. So thank you very much for the time you took and the answers you provided. For the listeners of Projet Libre, don’t hesitate, of course, to talk about it around you, to rotate this episode, I think even more this episode is the end that seems to me to be quite meditative. Tell us about it, leave us some comments, and then see you soon for other exciting episodes, still very different. So there you have it, thank you very much. Agnès, listen, we look forward to meeting you in real life soon at an event or somewhere.

Agnès : I’ll be at the Capitole du Libre. Since we’re talking to librists, in mid-November, something like that, I’m going to do one or two talks there.

Walid : Well, maybe we’ll meet there.

I wish you a good evening, thank you very much.

This episode is recorded on July 19, 2023.


This podcast is published under the double license Art Libre 1.3 or later – CC BY-SA 2.0 or later.

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