Not quite three years ago, I bought a Pixel 3, Google’s flagship phone at the time. It has been a good phone. I like that it’s not too big. I dropped it a bunch, but it didn’t break. And the battery life has not noticeably changed since the day I got it.
I think of phones in much the same way I think of refrigerators or stoves. It’s an appliance, something I need but feel no attachment to, and as long as it keeps fulfilling that need, I don’t want to spend money replacing it for no real reason. The Pixel 3 fulfills my needs, so I don’t want to spend $600 on the Pixel 6, which seems to be just another phone that does all the phone things.
But I have to get rid of it because Google has stopped supporting all Pixel 3s. Despite being just three years old, no Pixel 3 will ever receive another official security update. Installing security updates is the one basic thing everyone needs to do for their own digital security. If you don’t even get them, then you’re vulnerable to every security flaw discovered since your last patch. In response to an email asking Google why it stopped supporting the Pixel 3, a Googles spokesperson said, “We find that three years of security and OS updates still provides users with a great experience for their device.”
This has been a problem with Android for as long as Android has existed. In 2015, my colleague Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai wrote a farewell to Android because of its terrible software support and spotty upgrade rollouts. Android has long blamed this obvious issue on the fact that updates need to run through the cellphone company and phone manufacturer before being pushed to the user. At the time, Google didn’t make any Android phones; the Nexus line was the closest thing, a partnership with other manufacturers like Motorola and HTC (I had one of those, too).
But for the past six years, Google has made the Pixel line of phones. They are Google-made phones, meaning Google can’t blame discontinuing security updates on other manufacturers, and yet, it announced that’s exactly what it would do.
The planned obsolescence is frustrating enough, and I’m certainly annoyed that I have to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone when I really shouldn’t have to. It still boggles my mind that we can fashion a bunch of precious metals together to send invisible messages to people anywhere in the world. For millions of years, these metals formed underground, and then, with great ingenuity and exploitation, those metals were mined, transported, and sold as amazing and necessary technology, making Google incredibly rich. And Google has decided it will only put those rocks to use for three measly years before turning those rocks into something even less valuable than rocks. It’s now garbage.
I will recycle the phone when I’m done with it, but I’m also under no illusions about the likelihood that process will yield anything useful. Maybe one day we’ll get better at recycling phones, but because companies like Google want the phones to be as compact, energy efficient, and alluring as possible, they are put together in a way that makes them difficult to take apart whenever Google decides they will no longer function reliably as phones. Which, again, it has done after just three years.
For all of Apple’s sustainability issues, one thing it does better than most other consumer electronics companies is supporting its devices for a long time. The most recent version of iOS can be installed on phones going as far back as the iPhone 6S, which was released a couple of months after my colleague Lorenzo’s article. That was more than six years ago. I have had to replace two obsolete Pixel phones during that time because Google no longer supported them.
So I’m doing what Lorenzo did back in 2015. I’m switching to an iPhone for the first time. Unless you routinely destroy your phone within two or three years, there’s no justification from a sustainability perspective to keep using Android phones. Of course, Apple is only good by comparison, as it also manufactures devices that are difficult to repair with an artificially short shelf life. It just happens to have a longer shelf life than Google.
I’ve had a good run dabbling in the other minor alternatives. I even gave Windows Phone an honest try (my favorite mobile OS to date except for the lack of apps, although now I would love nothing more than a phone with no apps). But every time I look at my phone now, I just get mad, even before I turn it on to look at something on the internet that will probably also make me mad. This phone still works. It’s perfectly fine. I want to keep using it. But I can’t, because one of the richest companies in the history of the world can’t be bothered to push out some security updates every now and again.
If I wanted to stay in the Android ecosystem, Google is now selling the Pixel 6, which is guaranteed to get security updates for “at least five years,” two years better than the Pixel 3, and the first time they’ve offered a guarantee of more than the standard three years. I will give them credit for that. But it’s still not as good as what Apple consistently offers. I’ve bought too many Android phones over the years believing Google when they say they’ve figured out how to be better with updates, whether it was the Google Play Store promise or the Android One promise or “Project Treble.” None of it has mattered. It’s too little, too late from Google.
So here I am, with another piece of premature junk, made by the company that pledges to “maximize the reuse of finite resources” and “enable others to do the same.” If only Google could find a mineral as everlasting as its empty corporate promises, we might just be able solve this sustainability issue after all.