The German government is advocating for a major regulation update that would mandate smartphones receive software updates for up to seven years, dramatically increasing their longevity. Software update support has been a hotly debatable topic in the smartphone industry for a while. Consumer rights activists have been pushing OEMs to release security updates for smartphones for more than just a couple of years so that they can remain usable for a longer duration and don’t contribute to the growing e-waste problem. Such a change could also potentially allow consumers to get more value out of their smartphone investment.
Smartphone makers, on the other hand, argue that providing software support beyond two to three years is not a sound move, both due to technical limitations and financial considerations. Apple has an upper hand in this department due to a slimmer portfolio of phones to maintain, all of which have capable hardware. In Android’s case, with its well-known fragmentation problems, it is usually not a profitable move for a manufacturer to maintain a huge line-up of devices across all price brackets and keep them in the software update queue for more than two to three years. Similar financial concerns arise when it comes to the availability of spare parts for repairs.
The German federal government’s new proposal addresses both the aforementioned issues. As per a report by C’t, the German government is in talks with the European Union to draft new regulations that would force OEMs to provide software updates for at least seven years on their smartphones. Just to be clear here, that seven-year term is for receiving critical security updates, and not heavy feature updates that add new UI experiences. The proposal also seeks to ensure that spare parts for smartphones are available in the market for at least five years, and six years for tablets. Needless to say, this would be a major shift for both users as well as smartphone makers.
The proposed guidelines are definitely a sound move as far as reducing the e-waste footprint goes. It would be great if phones received security updates for three, four, or even five years, as it would ensure that the phone is protected from hackers who can exploit vulnerabilities and wreak havoc. It would also be extremely helpful for users if available repair parts for their phones for a longer span, ensuring that they don’t have to buy a new phone if the battery or display on the older one goes haywire. The goal here is to somehow increase the longevity of phones so that the production of e-waste can be slowed down and devices offer more value for the money. Samsung, for example, has already pledged four years of updates for a bunch of its pricey phones.
To recall, Google committed to four years of updates for phones that run Android 11 or a later version out of the box. However, smartphone makers argue that some of these demands are not feasible. DigitalEurope — a group that represents names such as Apple, Huawei, and Samsung — argues that feature updates can be delivered for two years, while security updates can be extended to a span of three years. Moreover, battery life degradation over the years remains another technical challenge that prevents smartphones from being usable for a term as long as seven years without some serious battery life issues or the need for replacement. One must also take into account consumer spending habits, especially when it comes to the frequency of upgrading smartphones to enjoy new hardware capabilities and features.