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How to upcycle your phone.

Why "upcycling"?

You have an Android phone and its manufacturer does not offer you any recent updates of your phone or its operating system? You are faced with the dilemma of either buying a new phone or keeping an outdated device running? Learn on this page how you can install and use a Free Software operating system on your phone that keeps your device up to date.

Installing a Free Software operating system means you often have more control over how long to use your device. In addition, it comes with a lot of other benefits. Free Software gives you full control over your device, you can finally de-install apps you could not before, and you profit from extended privacy protection - just to mention a few.

This is a Screenshot from the UA campaign video showing all benefits of phone flashing in one
Get active! Help the environment, save money, and use Free Software as a tool for self-determination and against waste and obsolescence.

Please note: If you are new to the topic and this is the first time you are planning to install a new operating system on your device, be careful! Don't rush. Some steps are quite technical. Take your time to understand what you are doing. Do the necessary preparations and research for your particular device in advance. And remember that you are not alone! There is plenty of information and help available from diverse communities, online and offline. These can be communities surrounding particular operating systems as well as general ones surrounding phone flashing. Many people also enjoy getting help by asking their local Free Software user group or repair café and getting to know like-minded people. Also, we run workshops to help you with it.

How does it work?

To get back full control of your device and to extend its usage lifetime, you can install a Free Software operating system. Installing an operating system on an Android device is called "flashing". You can choose to install a complete GNU/Linux system. A Free Software alternative system based on the original Android operating system is called a "custom ROM".

About GNU/Linux Systems

GNU/Linux operating systems usually put freedom first, and their development is totally separated from the Google-dominated Android ecosystem. Even better, the code development does not rely on any other single company either: GNU/Linux systems are developed transparently by large communities around the globe with no single entity that is in control. Code changes can be proposed by any volunteer around the world, and any accepted change is directly visible to everyone. Many developers put efforts into offering backward compatibility of changes and using GNU/Linux you will benefit from many years of support for the operating system on your device.

Choosing a GNU/Linux system for your phone means that some available apps will be different from what you're used to. This might be subject to change in the future though, as more and more Linux based operating systems enter the market. Also you can use third-party software to bridge between native Android apps and GNU/Linux systems or the other way round. However, the more Android apps you decide to bridge and use in your free GNU/Linux operating system, the more you start suffering again from restrictions in the Android world. Sticking to native GNU/Linux apps on your system usually means benefitting from using Free Software and Open Standards. And as more GNU/Linux systems become available on mobile phones, their markets and developments are expected to grow further.

Choosing a GNU/Linux system

Among the more prominent names are Postmarket OS, Plasma Mobile, Ubuntu Touch, and PureOS. And if you enjoy diversity and experimenting with technology, many more options are available to you. The PinePhone wiki, for example, currently lists 21 different Free Software operating systems available for running on the PinePhone. And a growing number of companies offer pre-installed GNU/Linux systems on selected phones, including a precisely tailored app environment.

Since development in this sector is quick, we cannot offer support or maintain an official list of possible solutions. Instead, we offer our community a wiki page to gather and exchange information on operating systems as well as pre-installed phones beyond Android.

About custom ROMs

Every time a new Android version is published there are multiple companies and communities who take the release code and republish it in modified versions as custom ROMs. This is possible because large parts of the Android operating system - excluding third party apps, the G-Suite, and some core libraries - are already Free Software. In practice, these custom ROMs usually ship a full Android experience but without the dependencies on Google's or other companies' proprietary software. And without other proprietary third-party apps that you might be used to seeing pre-installed when buying a new phone. This makes the software slimmer.

Choosing a custom ROM

If you want to install a custom ROM on your phone, there are many ROMs to choose from. Some of them are closer to the original Android, others are more distant. Some include more Free Software components or pre-installed apps than others. Some have their focus on security, others on usability, others on modularity. The number of custom ROMs to choose from can be disconcerting in the beginning. But in the end the choice gets limited by the phone model you have and the type of system you want to have, so it boils down to a manageable number.

Just to mention a few prominent examples that also span a range to choose from: CalyxOS has a focus on security and comes with verified boot. LineageOS has its focus to be executable on as many devices as possible and Replicant puts its focus on freedom by offering 100% Free Software, including the drivers. Use one of those or find one that suits your purposes well.

Controversies around phone flashing

Some phones are easier to upcycle than others. That is because some manufacturers make it artificially difficult for you to upcycle your phone, for example by using heavy digital restriction management. Often they want you to have to buy a new phone instead of renewing your current one. Therefore, many manufacturers also want to discourage you from flashing your phone by claiming that you will lose your warranty. However, according to the analysis of legal experts at FSFE, this will often not be true.

To be able to flash your phone with a Free Software operating system, you sometimes need to unlock the bootloader of your device. The bootloader is an underlying software level on top of which you install the operating system. On some phones it is easy to unlock the bootloader, on others not. Some operating systems can be installed without unlocking the bootloader, others not. Please note that we cannot offer you online or remote help with this process. But you are welcome to participate in one of our workshops.

If you currently need to buy a new phone it is recommended to choose your phone also based on the ease of future upcycling. Not only do you make an easier time for yourself but also you support more open phones with your choice. There are also several phones that come with GNU/Linux systems or a custom ROM pre-installed. This is of course the easiest option since they take away all the burden and offer you an easy-to-use experience.

Discovering the world of Free Software

Free Software is what runs most of our digital infrastructure and our devices. The Internet heavily relies on the innovations and accessibility of Free Software. And during the last decade it also became of ever growing importance and availability on your phone.

This is a Screenshot from the UA campaign video showing Free Software

Free Software comes with a lot of benefits. Free Software is available and can be used, studied, shared, and improved by anyone at any time. No restrictions involved. This is one of its core characteristics that in practice also helps to extend the usage lifetime of electronic devices - as outlined in our study. And Free Software is also good for your privacy. It helps you to keep control over your data. And, as you can see on this page, it also helps you to reduce e-waste and to upcycle your phone.

After upcycling your phone and installing a Free Software operating system on it you have the choice to manually post-install non-free software that might affect your freedom and privacy. This is true for GNU/Linux systems as well as custom ROMs. In the latter case you could even re-install the Google software and libraries again. But you do not have to! Keep control over your software and data and use your phone with as many Free Software apps as possible. For many users, upcycling their phones is just the beginning of a long journey into a world full of Free Software.

Any proprietary app that you can replace with a Free Software one is an important step towards a more sustainable digital environment, because any Free Software app you download and install will attract developers to invest more resources in further development of the app. And any proprietary app that is replaced with a Free Software app is one step out of the dilemma of software obsolescence - as outlined in our study On the Sustainability of Free Software.

In GNU/Linux environments, discovering the full world of Free Software on your mobile phone with ease usually works via their integrated software repository. In the case of custom ROMs, your journey starts with a Free Software app store called F-Droid and a replacement for the Google libraries called MicroG. If you are looking for enjoyable and useful apps you can find inspiration by browsing the F-Droid store or you can look for curated third-party catalogues like Fossdroid or Droid-Break.

  • F-Droid

    The F-Droid initiative has completely changed and facilitated Free Software app availability in the Android world by offering a repository of easily-installable Free Software apps for the Android platform. In practice this means that you can use F-Droid in a similar way to what you might have experienced when using Google Play Store or other app stores. F-Droid makes it easy to browse Free Software applications, install or uninstall them onto your device, and keep track of updates.

  • MicroG

    MicroG describes itself as a "Free Software re-implementation of Google’s proprietary Android user space apps and libraries". In practice that means MicroG allows other Free Software apps to seamlessly integrate into the Android system without having to use Google software for this. Free Software users get extended application support, privacy-caring users can reduce or monitor data that is sent to Google and especially older phones can expect some battery life improvements.

Regain control of your device!

This page could only provide a glimpse of the possibilities and the benefits of using Free Software on your device. It brings back control over your data, your software, and your hardware to you. If you want to install Free Software on your device now on your own you will find a lot of information on the Internet. If you want to visit one of our workshops check out our workshop page. If you like this initiative spread the word, join the movement, and tell others about our initiative and goals.

Upcycling of any of your devices

Installing a completely different operating system in your original Android phone is upcycling and reusing your device in one. Repurposing our devices this way is a practice that modern societies should be able to practise for all devices, helping us to live in a more sustainable digital society.

Remember that your phone is a general purpose computer. With the legal right and technical empowerment to install any operating system that fits, you can reuse your phone not only as a phone but also for example as a connected device in your home environment, just as in any other setting of interconnected devices. And repurposing of our devices should not only be true for phones, but for any device with Internet access. That is why the FSFE demands the Right to use alternative operating systems and software on any device. This would enable us to make full use of our hardware and to repurpose and reuse our resources in a sustainable way.

Further down the road, reusing hardware is not just a question of personal reusability: With the appearance and further development of "smart cities", "smart homes", "smart industries", "smart agriculture", and "smart everything", we will see an exponential growth of connected devices in this decade. Many of these devices will be part of larger public and private infrastructures. For the longevity of these infrastructures and the lifespans of the devices in use, it will be inevitable that we have the right and empowerment to reuse these devices for any purpose. This will only be possible if we can install and develop any operating system we want on any device. And if public infrastructures are to be set up with Free Software and public code from the beginning.

And there is yet more on the role of software for the longevity of hardware: In order to run different operating systems on a device, it is inevitable that these systems have full access to the hardware, its interfaces, drivers and standards. If you are interested in the full picture now, read about the FSFE's demands for true device neutrality as a cornerstone for a more sustainable digital society.

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The Android robot is reproduced or modified from work created and shared by Google and used according to terms described in the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License.