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The Fairphone 2 hits five years of updates, with some help from LineageOS

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Enlarge / The Fairphone 2 and its many modules.

Fairphone

Fairphone—the sustainable, modular smartphone company—is still shipping updates to the 5-year-old Fairphone 2. The company won’t win any awards for speed, but the phone—which launched in 2015 with Android 5—is now being updated to Android 9.0. The most interesting part of this news is a video from Fairphone detailing the update process the company went through, which offers more transparency than we normally get from a smartphone manufacturer. To hear Fairphone tell the story of Android updates, the biggest barrier to longer-term support is—surprise!—Qualcomm.

Fairphone wants consumers to keep their phones for longer, creating less e-waste and carbon emissions via modular replacement parts that are easily upgradeable and repairable. A big challenge for designing a long-lasting phone like this is software support. Even if Fairphone wanted to support a phone forever, Android software updates do not work that way, and major OS updates normally reply on a relay race of companies that all need to hand-off a build of Android before it reaches your phone.

We’ve gone over this before, but let’s do a quick recap of how Android makes it to your smartphone. First, Google releases builds of AOSP (the Android Open Source Project) to everyone. This doesn’t run on a phone yet, though. First, your SoC (System on a Chip) manufacturer (usually Qualcomm) has to get hold of it and customize Android for a particular SoC, adding drivers and other hardware support. Then, that build goes to your phone manufacturer (Fairphone, in this case) which adds support for the rest of the hardware—things like cameras, the display, and any other accessories—along with built-in apps and any custom Android skin work that the company wants to do.

How an Android update gets from a repository to your phone. First, Google releases code, then Qualcomm adds SoC support, then Fairphone adds hardware support, Google apps, and other customizations, then it must pass Google's tests.
Enlarge / How an Android update gets from a repository to your phone. First, Google releases code, then Qualcomm adds SoC support, then Fairphone adds hardware support, Google apps, and other customizations, then it must pass Google’s tests.

Fairphone

As a five-year-old phone, the Fairphone 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC, which is a major problem if you’re trying to do long-term support. Fairphone software engineer Karsten Tausche explained in the video, “Qualcomm stopped supporting the chipset already, after Android 6, and that made the update to Android 7 way more difficult than, for example, the update to Android 6.” Fairphone says it worked around the lack of Qualcomm support thanks to LineageOS, the Android community’s biggest custom ROM project. Just like how your SoC and hardware manufacturer would officially get AOSP builds ready for a device, Lineage also builds device-specific, ready-to-boot versions of Android from the source and releases them to everyone as an aftermarket ROM. Qualcomm is the only company with full access to Qualcomm’s proprietary code blogs and hardware documentation, so an unofficial, hacked-together build usually won’t reach the level of polish you get from an official release with every hardware company’s support. Lineage normally lives in the realm of aftermarket phone tinkerers, so that’s fine.

Fairphone is a Google app licensee, though, and this is an official release, so there’s a higher bar for quality. Lineage has to pass Google’s approval process, AKA the “Compatibility Test Suite,” a battery of tests that ensures manufacturers have built Android correctly, won’t have any major compatibility problems with apps, and have adhered to all of Google’s mandated policies for Android. Fairphone almost seems critical of Google’s compatibility process, too, saying it “is getting more and more complex” with each new Android release, and the Android 9 features “480,000” tests. Fairphone wasn’t sure it could ship an official build of Android 9 until it came up with solutions for all of Google’s test requirements.

As for the company’s current phones, the Fairphone 3 and 3+, the company says it’s planning an Android 11 update in the second half of this year. Fairphone says Qualcomm is planning to kill support for the Snapdragon 632 chip that underpins these phones in July 2021. Fairphone wants to deliver “at least one more major Android update” after Android 11, but that will mean doing another update without Qualcomm’s support.

As always with Android, things will get better in the future. The Fairphone 3, as an Android 10 launch phone, supports Project Treble, a major re-architecting of Android that separates the OS from the hardware support. Treble was built to exactly solve the problem the older Fairphone 2 is having—the separation means a company could theoretically update Android without needing support from their chipset vendor.

Today, Qualcomm promises three years of chipset support for major updates, which was pitched as a big improvement over the two years it used to give. That is still no where near as long as Apple, which offers around five years of support for an iPhone. Qualcomm previously explained to Ars that “The length of time a chipset is supported… is determined in collaboration with our customers” but here’s a customer asking for more support, and it’s not happening.

Tausche closed the video saying that even though the work was difficult, Fairphone wanted to set an example. Tausche said, “We are proud to show the industry that, even with our small team, it’s possible to support your phones longer.”

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Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes

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Enlarge / A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user’s permission to allow cross-app tracking.

Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track,” he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear—if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306 million users—including those who ask Snap “not to track”—so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data”.

These companies point out that Apple has told developers they “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, enabling ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” aligning with certain behavior but not associated with unique IDs.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that works with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-centric” tool based on aggregated measurement in July 2020, “the level of pushback that we received from the entire ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the default for 95 percent of his clients. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It is not clear whether Apple has actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article but described privacy as its North Star, implying it was setting a general destination rather than defining a narrow pathway for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to stand back from a strict reading of its rules because the disruption to the mobile ads ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put themselves in a situation where they are basically gutting their top-performing apps from a user-consumption perspective,” she said. “That would ultimately hurt iOS.”

For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, has called Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It performed a variety of tests on top apps and observed that personal data and device information is still “being sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies aggregating user-level data said the reason apps continue to “leak” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some require such information to function. Advertisers must know certain things such as the user’s language or the device screen size, otherwise the app experience would be awful.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties so long as they promise not to abuse it, Apple is in effect trusting the very same groups that chief executive Tim Cook has lambasted as “hucksters just looking to make a quick buck.”

Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, said Munchbach.

“If historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes hide a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Roku vs. Google drama winds down as companies forge multi-year YouTube deal

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Enlarge / Roku’s 4K Streaming Stick.

Roku

Roku and Google have arrived at a multi-year deal that will keep the YouTube and YouTube TV apps available on Roku’s devices, Roku announced on Twitter this morning. The agreement comes months after the YouTube TV app was pulled from the Roku Channel Store and just one day before the regular YouTube app would have been removed from the store.

Specific terms of the deal haven’t been announced, including how many years “multi-year” means and whether Roku will begin adding decoding support for the AV1 video codec to its hardware. We also don’t know whether the $65-per-month YouTube TV service will return to the Roku store as its own dedicated app or if it will continue to be rolled into the main YouTube app, as it has been since Google added it there to sidestep Roku’s restrictions in May.

Support for the AV1 codec has been one of the major sticking points between the two companies. The YouTube and YouTube TV apps use AV1 (which is backed by Google, among other companies) to deliver compressed 4K and 8K video streams. But because streaming devices tend to use slower, cheaper processors, they rely on dedicated video decoding hardware to be able to actually decompress and display those video files, and while most of these devices support the commonly used H.265/HEVC codec for high-resolution video streams, fewer support the royalty-free AV1 codec.

Roku has said that adding AV1 support to its devices would “increase consumer costs,” and requiring it for YouTube and YouTube TV support would effectively allow Google to dictate which chips Roku uses in its own products. Google has also accused Roku of using its position in the streaming-device market to secure more favorable terms (Roku’s devices account for a plurality of all streaming in North America, though its market share is lower in other regions). The YouTube and YouTube TV apps may not be able to stream high-resolution video on devices without AV1 support, though having those apps available in Roku’s store in any capacity is probably better for both companies than allowing them to be pulled entirely.

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Razer’s RGB smartphone cooler attaches to iPhones with MagSafe

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Enlarge / Razer Phone Cooler Chroma.

PC gamers know about heat. When you’re in the middle of an intense in-game battle, the last thing you want is for your computer to start acting up because your CPU or GPU got too hot. That’s why gamers and other extreme users rely on products like CPU coolers and liquid cooling systems. You probably haven’t been as concerned about your smartphone’s thermals while playing Candy Crush on your iPhone. Nevertheless, Razer released a new product, the Phone Cooler Chroma, on Tuesday to ensure your smartphone doesn’t overheat the next time you use it for gaming.

Of course, mobile gaming has grown beyond the likes of Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Razer (and some other vendors) have been trying to make mobile gaming a serious thing for a while. The company’s efforts are mostly focused on controllers, like the Razer Kishi, that attach to your smartphone. There’s also Razer’s finger sleeve for mobile gaming.

The Phone Cooler Chroma released Tuesday has a different purpose. Compatible with both iPhone and Android phones (it supports “most smartphones,” Razer’s product page claims), the product is meant to help keep your phone cool while it’s pushing those frames.

Interestingly, the fan takes advantage of Apple’s MagSafe, allowing you to attach the cooler magnetically. That’s convenient, but it also means the cooler won’t sit directly above the phone’s SoC.

If you don’t have a MagSafe-compatible phone, you can opt for the version with a universal clamp.

Clamp option.

We don’t know how adjustable the cooler is, but Razer says it works with phones that are 2.64-3.46 inches (67-88 mm) wide.

Staying cool?

1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.
Enlarge / 1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.

A cooling plate sits on the back cover and is topped by an electronic tile that uses Peltier cooling, also known as thermoelectric cooling, to transfer heat. The next layer is a heatsink under a seven-bladed fan spinning at up to 6,400 revolutions per minute, adjustable via Bluetooth. Razer says the cooler can stay at 30 dB.

On top of the fan lies a cover with air vents, and—of course—RGB lighting. Does the lighting help your phone stay cool? Absolutely not. But it almost wouldn’t be a Razer product without it. The gaming brand even put RGB on its N95 mask, so Chroma lighting here is no surprise.

RGB feels like a Razer requirement.
Enlarge / RGB feels like a Razer requirement.

There are 12 RGB LEDs in the cover, and each can be set to its own color and effect.

You’ll need a USB-C cable to power the Phone Cooler Chroma. The cooler comes with a 4.9-foot (1.5 m) USB-C to USB-C cable, but this seems like it could be burdensome when gaming on the go, as a mobile gamer is inclined to do.

Power over USB-C required.
Enlarge / Power over USB-C required.

Razer didn’t make any claims about how much cooler the product will keep your phone’s components. Unlike a CPU cooler, this cooler doesn’t come into direct contact with the processor, and it doesn’t have any exhaust vents to work with as some laptop fan coolers do. So the heat transfer from the actual SoC may be limited. Hardcore mobile gamers can find out for themselves for $60.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

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