Sustainable Smartphone

Green Manx phone box
Green phone?  Image via Wikipedia

After 18 months with my HTC Desire I can now upgrade to a new smartphone and I have been doing some investigating into what’s the most sustainable and smartest option out there.

Obviously the most sustainable thing to do would be to stick with what I have.  After all, it is a working smartphone.  There are two problems with that though.  Firstly, like many consumer products, it wasn’t built for long life.  As I have experienced with many phones, after a year the battery life started to noticeably deteriorate.  Now it struggles to last a full day of moderate usage.  I could buy a new battery, but battery life is just one of the ailments of this ageing handset.  In general, it doesn’t have the zip it used to have, and suffers from periodic hangs and crashes.

The second issue is that the pace of technological innovation and advances in smartphone technology is such that within six months, what was a cutting edge device outdone.  One specific example of relevance to my HTC Desire is the regular updating of operating systems.  My Desire runs version 2.2 of the Android operating system.  Version 4 was launched by Google just recently.  The latest handsets also have bigger screens, higher resolution screens, additional functionality, more memory, faster processors… the list goes on.

So, now that I have taken the decision to upgrade, what features do I want to have on my new smartphone?  The following are absolute requirements.  Any phone that can’t do these simply is not smart enough.

  • Good call quality (a fundamental basic)
  • Web browsing, with WiFi and 3G connectivity
  • A reasonable range of apps available
  • Access to work email and my Hotmail account
  • A calendar that will sync with my work Outlook calendar
  • A camera that shoots decent quality stills and video
  • Mapping
  • Music player
  • At least 16GB of storage, or the ability to supplement the onboard storage with a memory card to achieve at least 16GB in total.

That probably doesn’t rule out any specific operating systems for smartphones, but to simplify, I can immediately say that I am simply not interested in BlackBerry, iPhone or any of Nokia’s Symbian phones.  They are either not compatible enough with other systems I use or they are just not cool and attractive enough.  That leaves just Android and Windows Phone.  I had stated earlier that I was leaning towards going with Windows Phone, but things have moved on and I have been distinctly unimpressed with some of the new handsets launched for Windows Phone.  That, and the eventual release of a dedicated Hotmail app for Android, has brought Android right back into the frame.

So I decided to look next at various handset makers and their sustainability performance.  Greenpeace publishes an annual Guide to Greener Electronics.  In this, they “rank the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change.”  The version I have been looking at is almost a year old, but the next version isn’t due out til next month so it will have to do.  Also, having looked at this on occasion over the last few years, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of movement, with good companies staying near the top and poor performers near the bottom consistently.  Looking a the rankings and scores, Nokia are in the top position (score: 7.5), Sony Ericsson in second (score: 6.9), Samsung fifth (5.3), Motorola sixth (5.1), Apple ninth (4.9) and LG 14th (3.5).

That report focussed just on environmental issues though.  Looking more broadly at sustainability, earlier this year Corporate Knights produced its sixth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world.  This list ranked corporations using a set of Key Performance Indicators covering environmental, social, governance and financial data.  In terms of smartphone makers, Nokia was ranked fourth, Sony 30th and Samsung 93rd.

The Good Guide app, which I have recommended previously, against scores Nokia top in its cell phone category.  Motorola seems to do ok, with Samsung, Apple and HTC lingering some way behind.  BlackBerry gets a very poor score indeed.  Specific issues noted in the Good Guide and which form the basis for its scores include a very low score for Samsung on quality, safety and performance management, a low score for Apple in terms of its ethical policies and performance and a low score for HTC on labour and human rights.

The Free2Work app looks more specifically at labour issues.  Unfortunately in its Electronics category, only one maker of smartphones is listed, Apple.  They have been scored ‘D’, which is what most of the electronics companies listed have been scored.  Only HP score better and that is just a ‘C’.  Criticisms it levels at Apple include a lack of transparency in its supply chain and supplier monitoring and a lack of a requirement placed on contractors and subcontractors to pay workers a living wage.  It would be easy to say that Apple should be able to do better given how wealthy it is and the substantial markups on its products, but without comparator data for other suppliers I will refrain from being too critical of them.

Finally, from a purely allegorical evidence base, Nokia has a great reputation for producing good quality, long-lasting phones (my wife is still using one she got over three years ago).  Going back to my earlier point about longevity, this could also be seen as an important factor in choosing a sustainable smartphone.

Nokia Lumia 800

So in terms of sustainability, all signs seem to be pointing to Nokia.  It is good then that Nokia have just launched a new smartphone using the Windows Phone OS.  Granted that the Lumia 800 is not the highest specced smartphone out there, but it meets all of the minimum requirements set out above and looks good at the same time.

Sustainable smartphone?  You can’t do better than the Nokia Lumia 800 in my opinion.


Smart Sustainable Home – A Methodology

New beech leaves, Grib Forest in the northern ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been giving some thought to how I will approach making my home and life smart and sustainable.  It’s been quite difficult to come up with something robust and systematic as this is a project that will be ongoing over many years, rather than being a discrete project with a finite period of implementation.

Central to the project will be the formulation of a vision.  This will set the scope and parameters of the project (i.e. how much of my life will it extend to and what I want to achieve overall).  Then, for each mini-project or significant purchase, a specification will be prepared for what it needs to achieve (for example this could be the purchase of a new television or a project such as getting a new kitchen).  By their nature, specifications will be performance-based.  Performance will have technology elements (e.g. a mobile phone may be required to have 3G connectivity) and sustainability elements (e.g. a new kitchen may be required to have all wood from sustainable sources).  The setting of specifications could get tricky when technological requirements and sustainability goals conflict, but in these cases I will try to have to revert to the vision to try to keep me on the correct path.

After applying the specification it may be that a number of products meet the brief.  In these cases, the shortlist of products will be subjected to a comapritive appraisal of their sustainability performance.  This is something I have some experience of through my work, and I will be looking to develop an appraisal method to guide me in this respect.

So, going forward the first thing I need to do is set the vision.  This will require a certain amount of crystal ball gazing to see where technology is headed over the coming years and that is the next big thing I will be focussing on.

Paper-free Meeting Notes

iPad with on display keyboard
Image via Wikipedia

I was at a meeting for work on Friday with seven other people and the future was laid bare in front of me.  As I pulled out my notebook, pen and the great big pile of documents I may or may not have actually needed, two others at the meeting pulled out iPads, and nothing else!

I was sat next to one of these individuals, an architect.  It was interesting to see how he used it.  He flicked effortlessly between his note taking and drawings of the project we were discussing.  To think that that even before he left the room he could have sent the notes of the meeting to colleagues back at his home office, along with marked up drawings or anything else.  Surely it won’t be long before we all have tablets for work?  I can certainly see myself using one, and will definitely not miss lugging around that stack of documents.

computing ecosystems

using the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe a range of computing devices running the same brand of operating system and talking to each other is becoming more common in the mainstream media.  personally i like this term; i think it describes quite well the interrelationships between devices and software that is becoming more common with the advanced devices we now have and the advent of the cloud.  and clearly there are some devices that will talk to each other and others that won’t.

as you will have noted in previous posts, i currently have devices straddling two computing ecosystems, a laptop and a media pc running microsoft’s windows and a smartphone running google’s android.  so here are my thoughts on some of the main ecosystems out there and where i am (for the near future anyway) heading.

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

my relationship with microsoft’s ecosystem goes back a long way.  my parents’ first pc ran windows 3.1.  at the time i could even use ms-dos to do some basics.  windows has moved on and i have had significant experience of all versions with the exception of the infamous vista.  i really like the current iteration, windows 7.  it looks great and is fairly easy to use, but you can still get down into the bowels of it when required.

my other attachment to the microsoft ecosystem began in 1998 when i created my hotmail account.  like windows, hotmail has developed over the years, and now is just one of a number of web-based or cloud services microsoft offers under its windows live banner.

microsoft has also been in the mobile computing arena for a number of years, longer than most others in fact.  i have had a number of smartphones running their windows mobile platform, before i jumped ship to android.  these were great phones, at first ahead of their time, but they were suddenly left for dead with the development of the iphone and then android.  that said, although my windows mobile OS was completely outdated in terms of user experience, it provided heaps more functionality and connectivity than the original iphone (3g data connectivity for example).  microsoft has now of course ditched windows mobile and developed windows phone 7 from scratch to replace it.

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

i have had limited direct experience of apple products over the years.  my secondary school had early macintosh computers, but apart from learning some

basics, including a little CAD, we didn’t use these very much.  so apple stayed in the distant background for many years, emerging with the success of the ipod.  i was occasionally tempted to get an ipod, but was always put off by the price when there were always far cheaper rivals on the market.  as such, i managed to avoid the itunes trap.  so when the iphone emerged, i was thinking what does this give me that i haven’t already got?  it didn’t even have 3g.  apple have capitalised on their success though, and have over the years improved the iphone.  while not always leading in terms of hardware, i think there are few out there who would say it isn’t top or near top of the pile in terms of user experience.  but now there is competition; windows phone 7 has an innovative approach and android has continually improved its user interface.  however i feel on the phone front, iOS is now starting to slip behind the others.  to me, the forthcoming release iOS5 doesn’t seem to be adding anything that’s not already in windows phone or android, and i’m not the only one who thinks so.

but what about the ipad?  apple sure has made the tablet market its own.  despite a slew of android tablets and even some running windows 7 (which it must be pointed out was not designed for a tablet interface), the ipad is still by far the biggest player in this market.  in terms of features, the one that stands out for me is the 10 hour battery life.  that is way ahead of the competition in one area that a tablet really needs to perform in.

in my mind apple’s greatest strength is the support it has from developers and companies.  all sorts of apps, potentially even including ones for use in a smart home which are of key relevance to this blog, seem to emerge for iphone/ipad well before any other platform, if they make to the other platforms at all!

Image representing Android as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

my current phone is a htc desire running google’s android OS.  being from htc, the stock android user interface is overlaid with htc sense, but everything under the bonnet and all the apps available are the same.  android brings benefits in terms of endless customi

sation and a huge range of free apps.  it has come from nowhere just four years ago, to become the best selling smartphone OS in the world.  my biggest problem with android goes back to the creation of my hotmail account in 1998.  my phone just doesn’t handle my hotmail email well enough and i am not willing to switch over to gmail.  i have the phone set up to check my hotmail account hourly for new mail.  i can then read that mail on my phone and it comes up as read if i then access it on the web or a pc.  the problem is when i read new mail on the web or on a pc it doesn’t update the inbox on the phone to show it as read.  worse till, if i delete mail using the web or pc interfaces, it doesn’t delete it from the inbox on the phone.  this is a major flaw when a must for any smartphone is to handle email effectively.  maybe i’ve missed something in the settings, but i don’t think so.  microsoft, probably to promote their windows phone OS, haven’t brough out any useful apps for accessing their services either, so that’s no help.  i’m afraid for a smartphone this really is a deal breaker, and come august when i am due to upgrade, i think it will be over to windows phone for me.

The Start screen of Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7 - Image via Wikipedia

so my computing ecosystem of choice going forwards is microsoft’s offering.  as well as getting functioning email on all my devices, i see the following benefits this will bring to make my life smarter, if not my home too:

  • windows phone will provide easy access to skydrive, which i already use for uploading, downloading and sharing photos and other files.
  • i already have my contacts in pretty good order and linked between my phone and my outlook contacts at work.  windows phone will (i hope) allow me to extend this through hotmail too.
  • windows live mesh – i already use this to synchronise files across my two home pcs.  unfortunately they won’t let me use it at work (something to do with ports and network vulnerability that i don’t fully understand), so i’ll have to stick using memory sticks for now.  i haven’t heard anything of this on windows phone, not even with the mango update; but seeing as the whole point of mesh it so make your files accessible across windows devices this is clearly something that should be in place.  i should note that as well as synchronising files, mesh synchronises your internet explorer bookmarks which is very useful on PCs and something i would also like on my phone.
  • work email is another thing i already have access to on my phone and although you don’t want to be harassed by work email in your time off, it is extremely convenient at other times.
  • one of the most important things my phone provides for me is a calendar.  i don’t have a paper diary so this is indispensable for keeping track of work and personal appointments.  as with contacts, i look forward to having my calendar accessible through hotmail as well as my phone and work outlook.
  • i used to use the tasks in outlook as a to do list as it synced with my old windows mobile phones, but that is not the case for android.  android does not include any task management so you have to use a third party app.  i currently use astrid, but i look forward to having outlook integration again with windows phone.
  • i don’t have a separate music player, so i depend on my phone for listening to music on the move.  i currently have nearly 10GB of music so I need a device with at least 16GB of storage (or upgradable storage) to handle this.

so as you can see, the choice of ecosystem is rather important to me to have a number of services available at home, at work and on the move.  the forthcoming ‘mango‘ update to windows phone promises many new features, and combined with third party apps, i am looking forward to many possibilities for making home and life smarter.

my current home – tech

my current network

my current network

getting over to the smart home side of things, admittedly i don’t have a huge amount going on right now but what i do have has grown in scope, sophistication and complexity over recent years.  i am slowly building a network around my home.  at the heart of this is my wi-fi router; a livebox supplied as part of my orange home broadband.  despite this promotional animation which shows a seamlessly connected home, it has been quite problematic, with poor range, and problems serving up ip addresses requiring it to be regularly rebooted.  but i do get my broadband for free (long story, but i can summarise it as being a legacy-legacy customer) so i can’t complain.  last year i bought a couple of homeplugs which have helped deliver a more consistent, faster connection to my main computer, a home-build media pc.

i built my media pc around three years ago.  at that time i considered it pretty state-of-the-art.  it combines features of being a blu-ray player, a tv tuner providing access to hd tv broadcasts under the freesat hd banner, dvr providing recording of tv, and a media hub for storing gigabytes of photos, music, video and recorded tv.  all this was built around microsoft’s windows 7 operating system.  initially i started off using a pre-release test version of windows 7, and i liked it so eventually purchased a licence.  one of the most used features in our home is windows media center, which is pretty good for viewing and managing all media via a remote control rather than keyboard and mouse.  windows 7 also introduced homegroups, allowing easy communications between computers running windows 7.

so my second windows 7 device is a hp laptop.  this was bought less than a year ago to replace my old desktop, my first home build originally constructed in 2004 but upgraded at various intervals.  it is used primarily for internet browsing, email and office applications, but i also wanted a machine capable of some graphics grunt, so here i am with a dm3.

the third ‘computer’ i have is a smartphone.  my current model is a htc desire, on the android platform.

apart from speaking to each other to a greater or lesser extent, that is it in terms of the smartness of the system.  they handle my home media, but otherwise do not interface with the fabric or content of the home.  so as you can see in the diagram at the top of this post, there is a lot of potential in future to get things speaking to each other.  there’s a lot of research and planning ahead to make my home a smart home and get to a point where everything is talking to everything else!

smart sustainable home

what is a smart sustainable home?  there are clearly two aspects to this.  taking the smart part first, there is an emerging trend for integrating technology in the home, with lighting and media controls integrated and much, much more.  take a look at this video on bbc news for microsoft’s take on this.

what about a sustainable home?  this is something that has been growing steadily for years, particularly in the last decade with an increasing number of people improving their homes’ energy efficiency and even generating electricity at home.

to some, a smart sustainable home must sound counter-intuitive, and there are inevitably some conflicts.  more tech around the home must mean more energy use for one.  and then there are the other aspects of sustainability.  much tech is made in countries where abuse of labour is known to occur – look at the recent reports of abuse at factories supplying apple (i’m sure they’re not alone in this). economically there are also aspects to be considered, not least whether i can afford any of this!

so plenty of challenges ahead.  right now i’m trying to buy a house and i’ve got plans for that place which i will be looking into in this blog.