The Anti-Smartphone Revolution and how it can be improved upon
A while back I saw a video posted by the educational tech YouTube channel ColdFusion, called “The Anti-Smartphone Revolution”. The video did present a pretty accurate idea on how social media has been linked to mental health issues, such as decreased self-esteem and addiction, plus the political influence these platforms hold. And let me be absolutely clear, mobile devices need to go simpler in order to mitigate these issues. However, dumbphones still present some issues that are deeply tied to how our current mobile infrastructure is planned out. And this is what I'll be talking about.
Smartphone: Hot, sleek, dangerous
While the mobile phone is not a new invention, we didn't materialize its full concept until around 2008, after the iPhone 3G introduced the App Store and the market became desperate to launch apps from useless to overcomplicated, not to mention the copycats that also started to appear around the same time, such as the HTC Dream, the Nokia N97 or the BlackBerry Storm. This marked the switch from hardware being the spotlight to the software, at least for the most part. While the hardware was refined in the later years (bigger screens, smaller bezels, more processing power, bigger batteries), the general form stayed the same. The apps which ended up prevailing were the ones the public got interested in adopting without investing too much effort into tweaking. We ended up with a few services which have abused the trust of their users with the issues I listed in the introduction. In the end most of the world still uses the same general shape of the iPhone: A black, vertical square with the front body being mostly a touchscreen. However, the phone wasn't always this way. We had a simpler, utilitarian device before this striking change.
Dumbphone: Clunky, small, utilitarian
If you have back problems or you live in a lower income country, you've most likely seen the dumbphone. These devices played the simple role of allowing you to make phone calls on the go, send short text messages or perhaps playing a simple game. We didn't have much computing power in our pockets back in the early 2000s and, ergo, most used their phones for simple social or enterprise interactions. The issue with these devices is their low security. In the case of smartphones we can send messages using end-to-end encrypted messengers or VoIP apps, but, with dumbphones, carriers can listen in to this day on our conversations, which is not ideal for people living in authoritarian regimes or in hijacked networks. Also, currently manufactured dumbphones do not meet the same quality standards as smartphones do, and the ones which do meet them are prohibitly expensive. Take, for instance, the Light Phone II. The international version costs $299 USD excluding shipping and tax. Let me remind you, that's for a phone with limited functionality and specifications.
So where's the middle ground?
There are a few phones which can cover this middle ground. Take for instance, the Volla Phone. Its customized version of Volla OS includes a minimalist launcher and set of apps surpasses the functionality of the dumbphone while decluttering the smartphone. However, we still have to deal with the phone potentially losing updates after just a few years, since Volla OS is a fork of Android (which is also an issue if we declutter existing ROMs using launchers and certain settings as an alternative). Plus, while the launcher is an open-source, buildable app, Volla OS has not yet been distributed outside of Volla's own hardware, which is not affordable for a lot of the population. These also do not provide E2EE communication platforms by default, resorting to SMS apps or Telegram (which while it has a secure chat function, it defaults to server-side encryption).
I personally think the path should be taken with what I think is the communitarian alternative of the Google-Apple mobile OS duopoly – Linux phones, and more specifically those running on the mainline kernel. These can be maintained by kernel hackers in the long term and have less chances of falling into obsolecence. The current issue as of now is that we don't yet have a UI that's minimal yet friendly enough for the average user. Most still replicate the UIs of more popular smartphones, since these are the first usable environments that have been developed for the platform. Further work could be done with the community to bring these ideas to life in the future.
We should also push for decentralized and E2EE chat platforms as the defaults for these kinds of platforms. Apple has done this with iMessage, with it becoming the leading chat platform in the US. Matrix and XMPP could come into play, since they're not limitant to Linux phones and can be used on its alternatives and even on other devices independently.
While I'm most certain mobile manufacturers and development companies will not be reluctant to give up the current mobile status quo, providing viable alternatives is something we need to start doing soon. Let's agree that times have changed, dumbphones are an alternative that most people are still hesitant to go with and we need to make more ethical smartphones. If we manage to get at least a good fraction of the population on an alternative, we can convince our manufacturers that most of us don't need gimmicks, but rather great tools.