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Junkyard computing – repurposing discarded smartphones to minimize pollution (acm.org)
324 points by anigbrowl on Feb 10, 2023 | hide | past | favorite | 235 comments

We shall demand legislation with enforces that phones and other devices can be used like normal computers. Ie demand open boot loaders, open specs so that open source software can run well on phone devices.

If we can run open source software the length the devices lifetime last will be greatly extended. This will minimize electronic waste and e-waste pollution.

Its essential that all electronic devices can run open source software. That boot loaders and access to devices are not monopolized or crippled by device vendors.

Vendors have one main interest to is to sell new devices to consumers and maximize profit. Consumers and the government have different intrest in that devices last longer so we minimize the impact on the environment.

Come on, they don't even make phones with user replaceable batteries anymore, some even caught red-handed deliberately slowing down old devices which were actually perfectly fine. The reason behind all those malicious behaviors is simple: user maintainable and repurpose-able devices are bad for business. I don't believe governments are not aware of that, but nonetheless it still happened, why?

Formally my Samsung A40 has no user replaceable battery. Actually you can find plenty of videos on YouTube that explain how to dissect that phone and replace almost everything. I don't trust myself to replace the screen but I replaced the camera after the n-th crash on the floor (20 Euros) and the battery after 3.5 years (40 Euros). All it takes is a flat piece of plastic to open the frame and glue to close it again.

Was it better when that operation was a matter of 5 seconds? Yes.

Now almost everything is glued on. Even with proper tools, opening without damaging is almost impossible.

I’ve replaced the screen and battery on 2 different iDevices, the scary amount of heat generated by both have completely turned me off to even trying. They absolutely would have exploded at some point.

Yep, purely malicious, no plausible reasons at all to reduce peak power drain on old batteries, in fact - batteries only get better with age!

If we repeat this lie long enough we might believe it ourselves!

Well.... If you cycle a battery between 30 and 80% its lifetime increases by almost 10x. The battery management on phones is terrible. Either the manufacturer is stupid or malicious.

The fact that phones have no option to bypass the battery when plugged in is another obvious decision to kill batteries on purpose. In fact, I built a relay that connects to home assistant to turn off my charger when the phone reaches 80% at night. My battery is much healthier for it. It would be dirt simple to add this option to your phone OS.

> Well.... If you cycle a battery between 30 and 80% its lifetime increases by almost 10x. The battery management on phones is terrible. Either the manufacturer is stupid or malicious.

As pointed out by sibling comments this is somewhat common nowadays. iPhones will IIRC default only charge to ~80% overnight, stay there, and only charge up to 100% when it thinks your normal wake time is approaching. I remember Macbooks starting to do this at least 10-15 years ago. I'm not sure well this aligns as "an obvious decision to kill batteries on purpose". Is it possible that it isn't a grand conspiracy, but instead a natural consequence of having to quality and expense of parts vs what one thinks the market can support?

The other option from your proposal of course is never to charge above 80%, or call 80% "100%", in which scenario you would almost certainly have the same sources accusing them of being underhanded and anti-consumer by "artificially limiting battery capacity".

There is obviously no conspiracy. It's common business sense to not care about battery life in a product with a 2 year lifecycle. The fact that SOME phones don't overcharge your phone battery shows that it's a business decision rather than a technology challenge.

Samsung seems to have added a battery care feature that will detect if your device is mostly plugged in all the time and charge to 85% instead of 100%.

OEMs seem to be getting better about this.

I see batter limiters in MacOS, Samsung phones, Framework laptops, Microsoft Surface devices. Now we just need to normalize it on budget devices.

> It's not the crime, it's the coverup.

They may well had a technical reason, but I certainly don't appreciate them being underhanded about it. I don't have an apple device right now, so I'm generally out of the loop, but it seems like right now people can toggle the slow down, and also go get their batteries replaced. That seems like a pretty good end situation. Did I get that right?

Underhanded? As a response to the incident they have made it so you can explicitly turn it off, sure. But people trust the phone to make a thousand other decisions on a moment-to-moment basis about the tradeoff between CPU and battery, is it reasonable to call it being "underhanded" when singling out a specific one of them retrospectively? Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think I know a single person who would choose to trade an hour or two's battery for a 5% CPU bump.

Much like the iPhone 4 reception fiasco. Nothing actually changed reception-wise, except they changed the way they calculated and displayed the signal. But people were now seeing _different_ signal profiles than they expected, and apparently Apple decided (eventually) that changing it back and giving everyone a free case was better marketing that continuing to try and persuade people of that.

It wasn't even trading an hour or two battery for a 5% bump, it was "when you open the camera, the phone rebooted" - or when you did anything else which demanded a short burst of high power the ageing battery could no longer supply. Imagine arguing that you would prefer 'broken phone' instead of 'working slower phone'.

Haha, you reminded me of the days when some of my friends arguing iPhone's signal wasn't that bad but just could not make the call when everyone else could.

How did we find out about the battery thing?

It's never the device vendor's decision to make on how users should their devices. That's not something to argue about.

most of the use cases i can think of would have the phone plugged in somewhere permanently, digital photo frame, home assistant controller etc, so whether the battery is worn out wouldnt matter so much

>whether the battery is worn out wouldnt matter so much

Old phone batteries bloat up and become fire hazards. Ideally, phones could run permanentaly plugged in with the battery removed, but from my experience, they won't even power on without a battery present.

Some laptops too, it’s infuriating.

Isn't this because the charger cannot provide the same peak power that the battery can? I don't know how laptop power supplies work.

were that true the charge time would be longer than the run time (not strictly true, if the load is bursty what you say could conceivably be true)

its somewhat difficult and fussy to do power management in the way you would expect - that the input power is used to power the computer, and whatever is 'left over' is used to charge the battery.

this is just skimping on engineering bandwidth and a few extra components

> If we can run open source software the length the devices lifetime last will be greatly extended. This will minimize electronic waste and e-waste pollution.

i think you are overestimating the impact of such legislation. compare how many phones are sold each year with how big the open source community is, then how many devices will actually be used by that community after they’re no longer used by their initial owner. i fear the numbers are so small they won’t even register.

All the more reason to require open boot loaders and the like. If the community is that small, it will minimally affect the ability of manufacturers to move new product. At least at first, until people find out they can do more with an old phone than throw it in a drawer.

You need more than bootloaders. You need drivers compatible with somewhat maintained kernels too.

My phone's bootloader is unlocked and if I fix my broken USB port I could flash any Linux system onto it, but Linux has no drivers for most of the phone's hardware. The WiFi and Bluetooth probably won't work and the GPU probably won't be doing anything useful and the camera or fingerprint scanner will never in a million years perform like they do on Android.

You can't really continuously operate a smartphone without disconnecting the battery or it will swell up and die. Doing so with this phone will require careful removal of both the screen and the back plate with heated pads, suction cups, spudgers, and lots of tiny screws.

I may one day get around to replacing the battery and bad USB board, but if I do so it'll take at least a day of YouTube-guided work, maybe more. Then I'm still stuck with an outdated version of Android or an unofficial LineageOS fork by Some Guy because projects like postmarketOS have so far given up on my device (one maintainer broke their phone, the other gave up "for their sanity").

Until parties like Qualcom start working with the Linux kernel instead of against it, and Apple opens up their bootloaders, I don't expect these devices to be usable for anyone for the next couple of years. It sounds quite enticing to have an ARM cluster of relatively quick trashed phones, but the work you need to put into each phone separately to get it to work just isn't worth it.

WiFi and Bluetooth not working would be a feature for me. I travel a lot and all my phones inevitably get hacked, usually via bluetooth and surreptious network updates.

In that case, give postmarketOS a go on your device. You get the benefits of packages that actually receive security updates and an up-to-date mainline kernel at the cost of hardware support being very unlikely.

I note that there are a lot of exploits that enable replacement of proprietary firmware and operating systems:


This would be great also with MacBook with newer M1/M2 chips, instead of throwing then away because they're locked

but where's the money in doing this?

no money, no nothing.

Legislation is the key word here.

senators also use money, lots of it, way more than average.

so my question is still valid

Fair enough.

No thanks. I’m happy with my iPhone as is.

And you can continue using it as is. But let the rest of us have full access to the hardware to extend its capabilities and lifetime.

This perspective has a huge following on Hacker News and it's baffling. This site celebrates clever reuse of technology, creative thinking, and open source. But when Apple comes up, some people close down completely and the sharply defined cognitive dissonance looks very cult-like.

HN consists of multiple people who can each have different opinions. It's not a single person that simultaneously holds anti-closed-source and pro-Apple mindsets. A small number of people here might seem to, but I bet if you asked them to explain their position, it would make sense according to their worldview.

I like using what Apple builds and I don't like forcing people to operate by coercion. Apple builds and sells a product. If you don't like it... use something else.

As a customer would I personally put pressure on them? Sure. But the authoritarian coercive approach proposed by some is harmful at best.

If believing in freedom is a cult, count me in.

apple has acted against principles of free speech quite often.

Didn't Apple just release an patch that covered the 5S? The phone's 9 years old, now. An open bootloader is a different story, but so far, Apple's delivered on long-term support.

That's a great to hear, but unfortunately nobody else is doing it and Apple does so many other bad things to more than make up for that from an environmental pov.

Device reusability is an environmental issue, so your happiness is utterly irrelevant here. Making devices (or their parts) easy to keep using or repurpose means fewer need to be created and fewer end up in the landfill.

Pigouvian taxes.

Right, because that has worked perfectly every time so far...

1. The added cost will simply be passed down to the consumer. Since a perfect alternative doesn't exist and the market isn't free anyways, customers won't switch. And since the number of customers stays the same, profits stay the same, so the producer won't change.

2. The money from the tax won't actually solve the problem. Perfectly usable electronics will still be discarded, landfills will still fill and new devices will still be unnecessarily manufactured. The harm done is the same, only now the government has some extra change.

> an environmental issue, so your happiness is utterly irrelevant here

Ah, the insanity of the progressive left.

The changes you’re describing aren’t free and would have minuscule benefit overall. Instead, they would just increase prices for everyone else without any tangible benefit.

Yes, smartphones are more capable than they were. No, people aren’t going to fill up racks with them in lieu of actual desktop hardware. All of the infrastructure required to ice and maintain an old phone isn’t worth the effort and high failure rates. OSS firmware doesn’t solve those issues.

This has been a bit of my philosophy with PHONK for the last 10 years. “A framework for old and new Android devices”


Basically it is a device-hostable framework and IDE that allows rapid scripting to do interesting stuff.

I made robots, IoT controllers, music devices, tools and many more with it!

I would love to see a page or README section or something dedicated to showcasing some real-world examples of what can be built with PHONK. I tried googling it and didn't turn up anything, really.

Thanks for the feedback I will try to include some :)

I've used it to make a nannycam and while it's sort of rough around the edges(especially the documentation) it gets the job done.

cool! I have pending to change the camera API. The current one uses the old Android API which was a pure mess. They went though 3 API iterations and now it looks quite sane :)

what do you think of rapsberry pi moving to libcamera?

The section Awesomic Libraries should be expanded and made more prominent because I left the site with little idea of what I could actually create using PHONK.

On your project website

>Create graphics using a embeded Processing, audio using LibPd (Pure Data) and display maps thanks to Open Street maps, to mention a few

Here is a common misnaming here. OSM project is actually called "OpenStreetMap". Singular and without spaces. Care to fix this?

Thanks for pointing it out, I will!

I absolutely love this. Looking forward to trying it out soon.


I can see the love poured into this project. Impressive!


Looks remarkable! Don’t know how I missed it!


I like the UI stuff like the knobs, very cool.

Thanks! :)

I had a two old smartphone sitting in a drawer for a few years, an old iPhone5 and an old Android phone. A few months ago I looked into using them for security cams and did a search and found https://alfred.camera/

Alfred is pretty cool. They have a free version that does what I wanted and a premium version that's got quite a few nice additional features.

I'm still using an old iPhone 10. Apple has obsoleted it too. I can't install any apps from the "App Store" but it still does what I want most. The phone and the "Maps" and text apps still work fine.

One of my daughters works at Verizon and asked me if I wanted a new iPhone for Christmas last year but I really don't need one. I work from home, do not work for anyone else, and don't need any additional "Apps". My apps are "web apps" so they run fine on those old phones.

I think there should be a law that any phone that loses official support should be able to be jailbroken and boot unlocked by an official tool. The best thing about this is that it will disincentivize companies from dropping support early for perfectly functional devices.

Not a phone but my PlayStation vita got a whole new life after jail breaking it. I actually regret not doing it earlier. I can backup and play my games from a normal sd card attached to a cheap adaptor. I can play home brew and community patches and fan translations (I have some Japanese games that never made it to the west). I can emulate anything from the 16 bit era plus perfect emulation from ps1 and psp. I can even use moonlight to play my pc.

The poor vita rejected by Sony is so good I’ve decided to skip on a switch for now because it is that good.

As soon as Nintendo announced they were shutting down the E-Shop I finally homebrewed my 2DS XL. Best thing I ever did to it.

The 3DS series was probably the peak of console hacking. There was a surprisingly long period where you could install freeshop and it would download any game direct from Nintendo’s servers without paying.

Along with easy persistent soft mods.

I expect in the coming gens, console hacking will reach borderline impossible levels when things get replaced with memory safe languages. Probably all that’s left is cpu glitching with power and clock attacks.

The Switch is already said to be unhackable with purely software-side methods by the big names in the scene. I guess we'll find out with time if that's really true, but the current homebrew scene for it really only exists thanks to that hardware error in the first revision of the console which afaik isn't even Nintendo's fault. I think the 3DS scene may have been a real wake up call for them.

IIRC, launch-day Switches are sought after in the modding communities for this reason.

On a related note, mine is in almost mint condition, but I'll make sure to let the modders know if I decided to get the upgraded one.

I don’t think it’s unhackable, it’s probably more just unviable because any software exploit just gets quickly patched and becomes useless. Along with the difficulty of having to find a whole chain of exploits to work your way up the privilege layers.

The hardware exploit is still usable in the latest models but it’s harder to access. You require soldering a mod chip to the switch rather than sliding a jig in the controller rail.

But regardless, I think hardware security is outpacing hackers abilities. The cat and mouse game is becoming increasingly one sided.

There was a recent article framing the Steam Deck as a handheld PC gaming platform, which got me thinking about using it as a base for a handheld dev environment.

It's just a pretty ordinary Linux computer with a touchscreen and joysticks attached. I wouldn't do much serious dev on it myself because of the smallish screen but I've seen Real Hackers do more with less. Could be worth a shot!

Hundred Rabbits were talking about using a hacked Nintendo handheld with a custom OS; it’s for when they run out of power while sailing. These are the folks who made UXN, and even going as far as designing gestures and glyphs for each opscode so that computation can still be worked out without electronic devices.

I got interested in this from CollapseOS and Collapse Informatics, imagining a day when we lose our ability to make advanced microchips, but still have salvagable ones laying around.

I went a bit down this path cause I thought it would be fun to not bring my laptop and only bring the steam deck on trips. It's just unfortunately not very convenient, the laptop clamshell with the keyboard right there and stably attached to the monitor is just so much more handy of a design.

In terms of actual power, once you get the steam deck hooked to an external monitor with whatever peripherals you need like keyboard, it's just fine as a dev device, or for editing photos in dark table or running music production software. And, obviously, for gaming, works well, all in Linux.

In terms of using the onscreen keyboard as a "handheld dev device" I think one of those competitors with a miniature sized physical keyboard built in would probably be better, or there's a whole scene I glimpsed once of people making mini clamshell designs of machines with mini keyboards. The touchpads work ok but it's just infuriatingly slow compared to a keyboard, especially once you start needing brackets, parentheses, etc.

Or as Steam Deck shows, you can just drop the whole security theater and have a perfectly viable and arguably better handheld console device.

Same. The developer tooling for it is rad too. I’m blown away by it. It’s a really fun platform to hack on.

If you try it out drop the devs a donation! They’re super talented and deserve all the respect.

the PS Vita and the community behind it are a real marvel. The hardware is fantastic and has held up really well. I have one and i upgraded the battery, jailbroke the software… and i now have a fantastic emulation device in addition to full access to the PS Vita and PSX catalogues. Both are immense and the games are enjoyable.

I hope the steam deck goes down the same path and am eagerly waiting for prices to drop on the used market.

Don't forget the entire PSP catalog as well. The Vita really was an underappreciated gem when it was actively selling new units.

I was so mad when I purchased a carrier unlocked LG Velvet 5G just over a year ago. It seemed like the perfect phone

- 5G radio

- SD card slot


Then 3 weeks later LG quietly announces "yeah we're not making phones anymore. Sorry!"

Which, sure, fine. Fair enough LG. But at least let us unlock our bootloaders and put custom ROM's on the thing! What are you afraid of, we won't go out and buy a new Samsung phone instead?

They did release the update to 12th though, and reportedly there's going to be an update to 13th.

Why limited it to old devices? If I buy it I should be able to run my own software if I want.

Doing it for old hardware makes a much more compelling case for the general public to rally behind.

For lots of folks, as long as things are working, they don't care how. Limiting such a law to out-of-support hardware would give a clear value-add of "Your phone stopped working, but if this legislation got passed, it could keep working".

(I personally would love the right to control all my hardware, but that's a much tougher sell.)

If you just limit it to old devices, you're also limiting the pool of people who might be interested in hacking something up for the device to be usable by non-devs later on. You're certainly delaying the porting effort.

Because there's an implicit binding of hardware and software in the overall proposition which includes the software (like Fire homescreen ads), until 1 party wants to stop providing their side, which should then free the other.

I'm never shy about jailbreaking devices, new or old. They're mine, and I'll do whatever I want with them.

As a philosopher once said, just do it.

You might be right. Unfortunately the government is just as incentivized as the rest of us to uphold a consumer economy.

Or at a minimum just be designed such that when the manufacturer stops supporting it with their infrastructure its functionality degrades ‘gracefully’.

Haven’t reached the ID or update server for weeks? - probably no need to complain to the user every time they connect to a network. Even better, implement “Service Discontinued”, so the device either stops checking permanently or only checks occasionally and doesn’t report the now expected failure.

At which point the community interest in getting software working on those devices will have become quite diffuse. For example, take a look at how old devices drop off the LineageOS supported list. The main problem isn't bona fide DRM, but rather the endless churn of accidental complexity.

Newer LineageOS releases will increasingly depend on kernel features that aren't implemented by the downstream kernel in these older devices. So at some point old devices must be supported by the mainline kernel if they are to remain viable for general use. It's pretty hard work. (And there are lots of these devices too. I don't think we even have a list of every piece of hardware that was supported by the old Cyanogenmod at some point in its history.)

Sure, that's a large part of what I meant by "endless churn of accidental complexity". The embedded development mindset is to throw a working binary over the wall, maintainability and updates be damned. This kind of worked at the level of 16 bit micros where complexity was limited, but it doesn't scale.

The problem there is that you would have a complete freak out on HN and other online fora.

> I'm still using an old iPhone 10. Apple has obsoleted it too. I can't install any apps from the "App Store" but it still does what I want most. The phone and the "Maps" and text apps still work fine.

The iPhone X is still supported with the latest iOS release, iOS 16[1].

Just wondering what exactly isn't working or makes it seem obsolete? :-)

I'm also a big fan of riding iPhones into the ground!

My wife is still using an iPhone XS Max, that runs like new even on the latest iOS! :-)

[1] https://support.apple.com/en-au/guide/iphone/iphe3fa5df43/io...

I’ve been pretty bad for upgrading every year but i stopped at the iPhone 11 and it’s what i’m typing on right now. The battery status is “service now” and claims 70% capacity.

I noticed it getting annoyingly slow in some scenarios so before splashing to replace the battery i figured i’d try a clean reinstall and i have to say it’s cured it. So Even if the degraded battery is causing performance limitations like i was suspecting, it’s no longer enough to be a problem and a 70% battery easily gets me through a full day.

One less battery in landfill. For now.

I can’t imagine still being on the iPhone X. It was so slow when I got the 12

Slow in what sense? I was on an iPhone 8 until it broke a few months ago and it was plenty fast.

The main thing I notice is searching for an app in the search menu takes a long time. Opening apps also takes several seconds, and the phone will often get very hot just from normal use, like the CPU is being pegged just trying to run iOS.

Some have said freeing up space on their iPhone fixes it, but I have not had success with that.

I had my 6S until last summer (when I upgraded to 11 non-pro, it's the last iphone with a non-flickering screen right now)

My iPhone 6 is still snappy. Ex has an 8 which is great. How is an X slow?

> I'm still using an old iPhone 10. Apple has obsoleted it too. I can't install any apps from the "App Store" but it still does what I want most.

I still use an iPhone 10 also. But I have no problem installing new apps, so I'm confused by this. Have you updated the iOs and made sure the time is syncing properly? Those are two common problems that block App Store access.

My iPhone 8 seems to work just fine for installing apps. I'm on iOS 15.6.1, though the [iOS 16 info page][1] claims support for iPhone 8. (I may have chosen not to upgrade to iOS 16 in the past because my 64gb phone is chronically low on storage, and the upgrade will use an additional 2gb of storage.)

[1]: https://www.apple.com/ios/ios-16/

My daily driver is an iPhone8, running iOS 16.2. It's just fine.

Same here, replaced my old 8 last month, but only because a few rows of pixels went bad, not because of compatibility issues.

I just checked and it's an iPhone 6 Plus, so even older than I thought. It's one of my wife's old phones. She did get a new one for Christmas last year but traded in her old one, which I think was an iPhone 10, so that's probably why I made the mistake.

Like I said, I really do not use it much.

For reference iPhone 6 plus was released in 2014 (iPhone 10 in 2017)

8 was also released that year.

The 6s is still supported using last year's iOS version 15. It can totally run all of the latest apps still. Why would it have a problem loading anything. She needs to sign?

Ok, well, that is a very old phone!

It had a good run though!

I believe it holds the record as the iPhone with the longest iOS current release support.

I still have one I use as a test device!

It’s super laggy under the latter iOS releases I found.

I was going to say this too. iPhone 10 still supports the latest iOS.

I'm still using an iPhone 7 and while it doesn't support the latest iOS, I can still install apps from the app store.

I’m reading this on my iPhone SE (the first gen, from 2016) and it works totally fine.

The best phone Apple has made so far. I regret selling my one as the font zooming too inconsistent in 2017 and got to point too few apps I could read.

I agree. It’s my favourite sized phone _and_ it has a headphone jack.

> I can't install any apps from the "App Store" but it still does what I want most.

Apple has made this such a hassle... if you actually install an app on your new iPhone 10... you can go over to your "Purchased" on your iPhone 5 and install the version that runs on it (if it exists). However if you go on the iPhone 5 to the app store, they just say "so sorry, not supported" and it is the biggest slap you can give someone to remind them the product they paid for is not owned by them.

And I believe they do actually have the binaries still on their server. At least I remember vaguely finding a trick how to find their URL and download them manually. So I guess they could give you the last compatible version, but they don’t.

Haven is open source. Last updated 2019, but works.


There's a release from 2021

"This web browser is not supported. Please use Google Chrome on PC to continue with Alfred WebCamera."

IIRC The iPhone 10 has about two more years of support left. It's far from obsolete yet.

Yeah, I just checked again after reading the replies here and it's even older than that, it's an iPhone 6 plus. Maybe I should talk to my daughter about getting a newer one :D

> I'm still using an old iPhone 10. Apple has obsoleted it too

Do you really mean iPhone 10, i.e. iPhone X, or iPhone 1? The former are very much still in support. https://support.apple.com/guide/iphone/supported-models-iphe...

I'm no Apple apologist, but their long-term device support puts all others in the segment to shame...

How has the iPhone 10 been obsoleted? It just got iOS 16.

Thanks for posting, was recently wanting exactly this and was dreading wading through the app store/Reddit posts to find out what actually worked

Do you know if they stream the video to the cloud or just connect locally? I am looking for a kid-cam for my son's room, but I do NOT want to have it streaming anywhere outside my LAN. This could work, because I have two old Androids I could use for this.

Try this, it isn't exactly meant as a camera but it is local only : Meshenger (P2P voice- and video phone App.) https://f-droid.org/packages/d.d.meshenger/

They stream to the cloud.

They're based here in Taiwan at least so maybe no NSA snooping? Idk I vaguely used them for my lizard camera until I could muster up the energy to self host my own setup.

Your iPhone X is obsoleted? I have an iPhone 6 with iOS 12 and can download alot of current apps from the App store. In fact iOS 12 just got new update from Apple. You should check again about this.

Can it run as a camera on iOS "in the background", or does it require the screen to remain on, and the device to be "unlocked"? The linked page is very light on details.

I tried Alfred with an old Motorola something but the app and/or phone would crash and/or shutdown because of the heat. Your mileage may vary of course.

I strongly believe, after 5 years, every device with more than ~10,000 units shipped should have its bootloader unlocked, and its microcode/any necessary drivers opened up. Failure to open up should result in your license to sell new devices suspended. Unless we do something like this, we're headed towards potentially infinite e-waste. You can make the argument that everything should be a black box for security's sake, but x86/Apple laptops for example have unlocked bootloaders while maintaining security by means of OS encryption. The idea that security and privacy are fundamentally at odds is in my opinion industry gaslighting. People should have 100% control of the hardware they own, and 100% choice of the software they run on it.

While I agree that this sound nice this will virtually guarantee DRM-encumbered features of devices reaching their legally-required unlock date will be set to fail immediately. That'll force those devices to become e-waste anyway. No more streaming videos, no more using your bank's app, etc.

I miss the days when computing was focused on trying to protect the user from developers. These days it's more and more protecting the developer from the users.

I can still use my bank's "app" (read: web site) and stream videos on my desktop, which has an entirely unlocked bootloader.

That's coming. Just wait.

See Windows on ARM based PCs.

Sounds like you've stumbled on another thing we need to regulate.

We should do this sort of iterative thought experiment w.r.t. regulations all the time.

It's sort of like compiling a big package of code. Just keep trying to compile and fixing the errors that come up until it compiles.

Yes, regulating everything someone doesn’t like has a long storied history of success.

Do you feel that the level of regulation that we have in the tech sector is sufficient?

Why/why not?

But unlocking the bootloader, even only once official major updates has stopped, is a risky business move due to activation lock and Find My iPhone.

If they did this, there's a good chance phone theft creeps back to high levels, since thieves could just

1. wait until Apple releases new firmware that unlocks the bootloader

2. use that new firmwaare to wipe the memory that handles activation lock

3. re-install a fresh iOS

4. resell the phone

iPhone 8's still go for over $100 on eBay, so it's not unprofitable to 'inventory' stolen phones by throwing them in a desk drawer to sell within a few years.

Android already has a solution to this. Unlocking the bootloader requires disabling activation lock.

Even back on the nexus line, if the phone was stuck in activation lock, you’d have to unlock with the google account and then with the phone unlocked you’d use adb to unlock the bootloader.

Unless I'm misunderstanding, a big point of contention is activation lock specifically. Unless you're buying $50-100 iPhone 7's and 8's off marketplace, chances are tons of devices you see in landfills are activation locked phones that either had their battery cut out, got cracked to the point where the user couldn't use the device, or were so badly damaged they just threw it away with no thought to reuse. In this case the iPhone(/iPad/Mac) is still locked, but enabling scrapyards to repurpose them by disabling activation lock would either allow criminals to do this as well, or if you had some vetting process to be able to remove the lock, it might just then the scrapyards de-facto dumps for stolen iPhones (since the scrapyards will like pay more for each phone once they can repurpose and sell them).

That's a lot of risk for $100 in 5 to ten years.

It might be for a small-time thief, but the more likely scenario is that they ship it to China (like they already do when they snatch an activation-locked phone and sell it for parts) and get $100 now, and the long-running shops in China do the long-term inventory for these phones instead of disassembling them for parts.

Thieves are not known for their patience. Stealing things that won't be valuable for several years is not a very good business.

The same should go for cars. I've got some bugs I want to fix on my in car entertainment system...

As far as e-waste goes from discarded smartphones goes, it is not clear to me that it is a problem we have to solve now, as opposed to just storing the discarded phones somewhere until it becomes economical to break them down for recycling.

Given the number of smartphones currently sold world wide per year, and allowing for reasonable growth, if everyone discarded their phone every year and those discards were all just dumped into a 1 km x 1 km pit, if you made that pit 30 m deep it would be able to hold well over a century's worth of phones.

Where's this license to sell new devices that you speak of? And if it's hypothetical, what's the definition of a device that such a license would restrict?

> potentially infinite

The moment we run out of rare minerals to build touch screens, there wont be an infinite e-waste problem anymore, unless we find some other fancy uses. It’s a finite resource logic that is needed; that mindset should be adopted globally and there should be a general agreement on how to best manage these finite resources…

> Failure to open up should result in your license to sell new devices suspended Isn't that a bit like death by a thousand cuts?

I don't think that paper considers the issues of the batteries seriously enough. If you're going to build a cluster of old phones, I'd highly recommend disconnecting the batteries.

A quick look at the phones in my drawer show two with swollen batteries and one with a battery that no longer holds a charge, which is the reason they all got retired. My appetite for risk doesn't include setting fire to a building to save money on data centre costs.

I miss being able to change out the battery on a mobile and the push for making un-fixable phones has an obvious recycling issue.

My Samsung Galaxy S4 for example won't boot without a battery. Also the battery protection circuit is checked for. To get the phone to boot without battery i had to remove the cell from the battery and then connect a power supply to the leads of the protection circuitry. Not without risks either.

Seems like something that could be solved with a small capacitor bank. I may have to give this a try and see what I can figure out.

I figure the input voltage would be somewhere around 5 volts and the expected output current would be 3.3 to 4.2 volts, but I bet a static 5 volts should be fine if the chip only checks to see if there is current.

I've done this a few times, just an electrolytic capacitor across the battery pins often works.

Phones won't boot with battery disconnected, there are very high current spikes, especially while booting. Also there may be a required boot check for i2c/spi handshaking with the battery.

Previous recommendations reducing risk of battery disasters on another "use an old phone" story:



There are some folks in the permacomputing community working on this in a generalized way. Some, like the folks making CollapseOS and DuskOS foresee an eventual collapse, where our civilization is unable to fabricate new microprocessors, and so we have to repurpose and scavenge old ones.

We're talking things like, repurposing z80 (such as in older TI calculators) as an environment for reprogramming microcontrollers.

We help you turn old android phones into robot brains if that's your thing. No bluetooth needed, we use the audio jack as a serial port. https://robots-everywhere.com/ (all designs are free on the wiki, or you can buy it)

There should be something like a 'right to repurpose' for old tech. The only reason I keep old PCs laying around is because the BIOS allows anything to come along and install on it.

More than that, there should be a "right to do whatever the hell you want" from day one. It's your device, you paid for it, and you own it, yet for whatever reason we allow these companies to tell us how we can use the hardware we paid for and own.

You have a right to do whatever you want with it. You can take a hacksaw to it, hit it with a hammer, flash the BIOS with random noise. You won't be imprisoned, the government won't disappear you, the company won't sue you and won't care at all.

What you are demanding is more like "after I bought it and the transaction is complete, I want the company to put person-years of unpaid work into making it work a different way which was never offered or part of the deal". That's completely different.

No, this is not correct at all. I am saying that I should be able to run whatever code I want on hardware that I own and pay for. There's no effort from the manufacturer required at all for this in the same way that I can currently run whatever code I want on my laptop without the support of the manufacturer.

My ~$200 Moto G has 8 arm cores, 4G ram and 64G EMMC storage. That is actually significantly more powerful than the VPS I pay monthly for, and could easily host git repos, a website, irc bouncer, and much more, and the hardware is already payed for!

I see people complain about silly things using trivial amounts of electricity killing the planet (like Gentoo & building software from source) meanwhile there are huge targets like this that consume unimaginable amounts of power and resources and a lot of waste to go with it.

I really wonder if total cost of ownership/energy required to run a cluster of old android phones would actually be lower than one or two servers.

The phones are ARM, will have battery issues (esp if they run 24/7) so you need to provision for safety, can only be connected over wifi, have thermal issues (they are meant for burst, not sustained load), have non-homogeneous bootloaders/bugs and so on

Yeah these are all very valid issues! I imagine it would depend on the specific use case and how much computing power you need. Also the energy going into the production of the phone should be considered as well.

Being able to remove the battery and run from AC would be very helpful I think. Phones used to be able to do this but a lot of modern ones don't have removable batteries which is a problem of it's own.

My VPS use is actually fairly bursty though. It spends 99% of the time asleep since I don't do much with it. Even a small website/webserver or hosting cgit and git over ssh would be very light and almost entirely burst loads for me!

> Most of these unwanted smart- phones are neither discarded nor recycled but languish in junk drawers and storage units.

The people who wrote this must not have kids. :)

All of my old smartphones become PBS Kids devices until they are destroyed. Then they get recycled. Except for the one we lost on a plane. I hope whoever found it found a good use for it.

I was an author on this, and I have a kid :) That kid uses my old iPad.

I'm glad you are reusing your smartphones.

Phones without an active sim can still dial 911. Risky to give to kids, unless they're older.

It's possible, but it takes about five steps: click emergency or open the dialer, press 9, press 1, press 1, press call. At least with my kids they've had the maturity to only call 911 when it was appropriate long before they would have been able to figure that out on its own.

(And I taught them how to do this on my phone as soon as I thought they were old enough to do it, around 4.5y, in case something happened to me while I was watching them.)

My daughter accidentally discovered that my pixel phone dials 911 if you press the power button 5 times in a row. Very easy to do without meaning to.

I hide the dialer deep in the menu. I also keep the phone on airplane mode.

To accidentally call 911 they'd have to find the dialer, and press 9-1-1 in the right order. At this point they're old enough to know better, and before they were old enough, they didn't know what it was, so doing it maliciously would be unlikely.

Also since the phone is on airplane mode, they'd also have to disable that first, because even emergency mode doesn't work in airplane mode.

Never heard anyone complain about this. You must have had some rare things coincide to get to that conclusion.

What do you mean? The phones can dial 911. That's just a fact. Curious young kids have been dialing 911 just to see what happens since before cell phones existed.

We have an epidemic of statistically unlikely things that people get disproportionately worried about, but this one needs more punching up to capture the public’s imagination.

I mean that lack of people complaining means kids don't to it.

Who would complain?

There is actually a whole professional person whose job is to complain about this. When a kid dials 911 and the cops come and arrest people for no good reason, somebody is almost guaranteed to complain about it.

It's me. I wake up in the morning, have coffee, put on my pants, then go to court and formally complain about things like this all day.

The Public Defender strikes!

Basically anyone with kids would tell that as a story, if it happened to them or to their friends.

In that case, what's the risk?

1) It's not great to tie up emergency resources without good reason.

2) It can get you angry, threatening call-backs from the authorities.

3) It can make annoyed and/or on-guard (because there might be an actual emergency of unknown nature) cops show up at your door—and if it happens more than once, there may be legal consequences in play, and possibly even the first time if they're in an especially foul mood.

Consider that a young kid might well dial it over and over not even realizing the call's going through (if they don't know what it looks like when the call's been answered, and are used to speaker-phone mode and video calls and aren't used to putting the phone to their ear, which is true for a lot of young kids these days).

It's probably fine for most 7+ year olds, but PBS Kids has a ton of content targeted much younger, and even kids 4-5 years old can usually learn to use the app pretty quickly.

There's a faq on the 911.gov site advising parents to take the batteries out of phones they give to young kids, for this exact reason. It also advises that, if you accidentally call the number, you stay on the line to explain what happened so it's not mistaken for a real call, rather than hanging up—young kids are highly likely not do to this, and to instead hang up or just leave the line open without saying anything.

I think you're really overselling the risk here. At most any given kid is going to do this once, and the vast majority not at all.

Jesus, I never expected these responses.

Yeah, sure, do whatever I guess.

Is there any case where a kid calling in has caused serious harm or damage? I'll assume there's like...one, maybe.

More importantly, is there some kind of pattern of it that warrants...a response of some sort?

This sounds like kids getting poisoned from Halloween candy, which happened once from the kid's own parent.

What about the other 5 devices?

We maintain an army of charged phones to avoid fights and for long trips when the battery runs out on one of them.

I love this.

I've been thinking of building a "poor man's cluster" using every old phone, Kindle, or laptop.

They make a good point how phones have batteries that can charge at off peak hours. I figured if I built my cluster I'd remove the batteries to reduce the fire risk.

> I've been thinking of building a "poor man's cluster" using every old phone, Kindle, or laptop.

I think the Africans have beaten you to that idea already.


On a more serious note though, repurposing old tech is perfectly valid, all we need is more programmers, so should programming become a mandatory lesson taught at schools in order to reduce e-waste, alongside Maths English & Science?

And would it lead to a world looking like this https://i.redd.it/z123hws4wtj31.jpg or like this https://i.redd.it/shvbec21k8y81.png ?

Owning the means of production is no simple task.

> I've been thinking of building a "poor man's cluster"

It's not a bad idea, but what would you do with it?

The same things you would do on a cluster of raspberry pi, the possibilities are endless!

Has anyone ever looked into repurposing wifi devices like phones as mesh routers? Or open cell networks? They would have to always be plugged in but seems like a good start to an open infrastructure

My biggest hurdle reusing old phones and tablets is the battery failing over time wile living on the charger. We need a project or company that makes dummy batteries that just report 100% full all the time.

I've seen at least one hacker do this. It's not so much the voltage but you need to provide a valid temperature sensor as well (the 3rd pin on most phone batteries).

Supposedly it’s not just a software check, but the devices actually need a battery since the peak power usage can briefly exceed the chargers capabilities.

I noticed strange power behaviour in an old phone after not using it for a period and storing it charged. It seemed to run down, and have less room at the low end between 20 and 0% charge. I'd like to do something with the phone but I am not sure if I can easily get inside and access the battery. I do have an old galaxy 2 without a battery that I could do something with but I'm not sure what.

On rooted android you can use Advanced Charging Controller (ACC) [0] to control at what levels to charge. I use it to exchange normal capacity for longevity.

[0] https://github.com/VR-25/acc/

A capacitor across the battery pins will often do the trick.

Couldn’t that be done in software?

I'm imagining firmware level checks, but both directions should probably be investigated

> wifi devices like phones as mesh routers?

Unless your uplink is bluetooth, it only has one wireless antenna, so you can only either connect to an AP or broadcast an AP, not both at the same time (AFAIK).

You can run a network dongle off the USB port (some phones) to have two network paths.

A phone is never going to be a great node device for a mesh network, though.

I see, that’s too bad

I fear that these devices are going to become less and less usable, not because they arent physically operable, but instead because companies like Apple are allowing them to become bricks if the owner doesn't pre-empt their demise or recycling. It's done today in the name of theft deterrence, but once these machines end up in drawers and storage lockers for years, I doubt most people will be able to unlock them successfully, rendering them sadly useless.

i disagree. The theft deterrence feature that apple offer is actually useful and does what it says - deter theft.

I anticipate the opposite happening because devices are becoming more powerful and more power efficient. I own a PS Vita - this is 2012 hardware - and it holds up very well. granted, this is the exception to the rule but there is no reason why an iphone 12 (for example) cannot be repurposed down the line. the hardware is good enough and fairly durable.

if it stays in a state where it cannot be reused (because the user no longer has the ability to unlock due to forgotten password, etc), then no matter how powerful it is, it will be a brick.

The use case I'm most excited about for old phones is selfhosting. There's no reason things like a Plex server can't just be an app on your phone. Plug in a USB hard drive, go through a quick OAuth flow to open a tunnel with a service like Cloudflare Tunnel or ngrok and you're set.

If lineageOS (formerly cyanogenmod) is available for your old smartphone (or tablet) it will give it many more years.

There's also postmarketOS, which is more like a 'normal' Linux distro, so probably a better choice if you want to use the phone as some sort of compute node.

What's beautiful about pmos is that you can use docker on it. Very easily you can set up a very functional home lab/server off an old phone.

I did so with an old OnePlus 5

Big if though. Each device requires special support from the community, and even big name devices don't always make it.

Plus some providers mandate that bootloaders can't be unlocked if sold bundled with their service, even if that device is normally unlock-friendly.

Not for server workloads though. Docker is still a PITA to run on android, needing a custom kernel and also a patched version of docker


My old android phones are repurposed as web camera and single purpose devices (e.g. the local sports complex expects that everyone, including kids, has their smartphone (obviously), so I just installed their stupid app on the old phones for this; they stay turned off otherwise).

Many great ideas both in the paper and in the comments, but people forget that we don't own our devices any more, we just rent them. If we owned them we could have replaced the batteries ourselves, or change the bootloads or do anything we want. Contrary to what happened with TVs, were models are being sold at a lower pricce with the help of spyware installed on the TV, some phones are sold at full price and still we don't own them.

This is impressive, the energy efficiency of even outdated phone tech is way above server/desktop systems. It seems like phone technology will be the only viable computer technology for virtually all use cases soon. Arguably, Apple already realizes this, with their Apple Silicon computers now very similar in design to an iPhone.

It's too bad that Apple hardware is arguably impossible for this use case. You can't flash a custom ROM so you're limited to what the OS allows (which isn't much). And that's only if you have a developer account that can still build and sign apps for old hardware/OSes, which also need to be refreshed every 7 days.

Best case scenario is to stop updating the OS and wait for a jailbreak, which does allow you to run full virtualization[0].

0: https://worthdoingbadly.com/hv/

You can install custom OSs on the Mac line though. A Mac mini would make a great server.

I'm skeptical. At a small scale, you could put together a cluster, but other than for the fun of putting it together, I don't see the point. I'd rather have a older Xeon with a high core count and use VMs or processes because it's more reliable and easier to manage. Or rent a cluster in the cloud for an hour.

For large scale, dealing with heterogeneous hardware with questionable life remaining strapped to batteries that might start fires connected over USB or Wifi isn't ideal. Not to mention installing cluster software on all of them. At scale, you'd really want to strip the CPUs and mount lots of them on a single board, but that's not cheap to do. You're also dealing with 3+ year old technology that's been replaced by something more power-efficient.

In the hands of kids, old smart phones are not obsolete so long as they can play games: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/2470654.2481379

I'm surprised no one mentioned about Google's Project Ara. A modular smartphone with reusable components that can be plugged/replaced as needed. I was really excited to see a big company like Google committing to such a green project, but unfortunately it was discontinued for unknown reasons. I think all electronic items (and electrical and mechanical items which are increasingly electronic) should be regulated by gov such that they are designed and built to be modular, composable, repairable, parts-replaceable.. that will be a huge win for environment

Something similar (in terms of using idle smartphone time) that I worked on in past is running automated tests on a distributed network of mobile devices.

Stopped working on it but the code is open source and I wrote about it a while ago: https://elvischidera.com/2020-11-23-building-distributed-and...

I like this idea. I've kept all my old phones. Part of it is for nostalgia. But yeah be nice to plug them in and use them even if it's not efficient.

Any suggestions on what approach to take. Rooting and jail breaking seems over the top to serve compute power. Anybody got say an AIDE built app or similar that works from Android 4 or something similar for iOS? I have a shoebox of old phones and tablets waiting for a project like this. I just don’t know where to start.

I've wondered about using an old smartphone as an SMS server, seems like it would be ideal.

The National Upcycled Computing Collective (https://www.nuccinc.org/) is a group dedicated to this concept.

They are doing some very interesting work along these lines.

This reminds me of the souper computer! Except with better efficiency. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Soupercomputer

What about security? I didn't see it mentioned in the paper.

Most of the "junkyard phones" are way out of support, who's going to build anything serious with this? It's a security disaster waiting to happen.

Does anyone have an idea how they built the cloudlets? I find the concept very fascinating but I don't have any idea how one would go about building such a large cluster of old phones

I'd imagine you're asking like, how did they _physically_ do it? That is an interesting question, I'd love to see pictures.

But from an infrastructural standpoint I'd imagine that just putting a bespoke Linux distro on each of the phones and connecting them to the same network would enable the same kinds of orchestration you'd do in a "regular cloud."

Both actually. How did they do it physically and what did they run on the phones? I found it especially interesting that 20% of the devices had to act as master or networking nodes

I would guess that it would be an app that uses wireless networking.

Probably slow as molasses compared to a blade server but also probably pretty powerful since it has so many compute nodes.

smartphones are terrible. I might just try to get lodged into some good-enough well paying company for the rest of my life, and go back to dumb phones. Any given new tech company might expect you to have a smart phone for MDM or multiple authenticator apps. Asking for alternatives during the interview is not really popular. If it weren't for jobs, I wouldn't have a smart phone at all.

I would like to combine forces with a project I’ve designed utilizing and repurposing phones as a documentary tool.

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