Two years ago, our consumer electronics reviews added a new criteria to be judged – how sustainable the latest device, laptop or tablet is. So have the tech giants made any progress? In some way, yes. But there is a long way to go.
Most major technology firms offer device recycling, too, even if it is through third-parties and often only when you buy something new. Much more is needed if we are to reach a circular economy, including better recycling.
Much of the progress has been brought about by a combination of consumer awareness and investor pressure. Real change can happen in a consumer industry if people vote with their wallets.
Access to information on what goes into making a device, the length of software support and the repair options, is still limited but getting better for some things. Some of the biggest companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Google, publish environmental impact assessments, but not for all products and often with limited scope.
Software support improving
Keeping your device rather than needing to buy a new one is better for the planet and your wallet. Progress has been made on this front, too.
One of the biggest issues affecting the longevity of smartphones is the premature expiry of software support. The ending of crucial security updates renders perfectly serviceable devices unsafe to use. It is still very much a problem, with some companies offering as little as two to three years of updates from a device’s release, including big firms such as Oppo, particularly for cheaper models.
But with Samsung extending updates to at least four years for a range of phones, not only high-end models, and Google promising at least five years for its Pixel 6 phones, others are finally starting to catch up with Apple’s five to seven years of updates for its iPhones.
Repair and resell
The repairability of consumer electronics is slowly improving too. Dutch firm Fairphone continues to set the standard with its latest modular phone that can be repaired at home with just a simple screwdriver, is made from ethically sourced and recycled materials, and will have six to seven years of software support. US startup Framework is trying something similar with modular, repairable laptops.
However, where the big tech firms are starting to tread, the cheaper end of the market is not yet following. “Inexpensive, disposable products are a real problem,” Wiens says.
Even where products are designed to be robust enough to last, many of the smaller devices such as headphones and wearable technology are difficult to fix and contain irreplaceable batteries that wear out, giving them a finite lifespan.
“There’s such a fantastic opportunity for large brands to step up and make their products long-lasting. The resale value is the real test of a product’s impact on the market,” Wiens says.
Comment Intel puts on a show for its biggest manufacturing announcements, with episodes every few years using a rotating cast of CEOs and US presidents.
Intel boss Pat Gelsinger and President Joe Biden were the latest to join the series, on Friday jointly announcing the chip maker’s investment of $20bn in plants near Columbus, Ohio. The fabs could be operational by 2025 and make chips down to 2nm and beyond.
“This is our first major site announcement in 40 years,” Gelsinger said on on-stage later in the day with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R).
“Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America,” DeWine said.
Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America
Intel has previously wheeled out chief executives and commanders-in-chief to announce the plowing of billions into factories, with the presidents using the events to highlight the bump in manufacturing and jobs for the United States. But the aftermath has been littered with unfulfilled promises and failed goals, partially due to Intel’s sometimes incoherent manufacturing and product strategies.
This time around, Gelsinger has identified manufacturing as a major growth driver, as part of his Integrated Device Manufacturing 2.0 strategy. Intel has promised to expand its contract manufacturing in a meaningful way, fabricating components that use the non-x86 Arm and RISC-V architectures, and signed on Qualcomm, a semiconductor rival, as a foundry customer.
Intel’s latest $20bn commitment will be used to build two plants on a 1,000-acre site that could be expanded to up to 2,000 acres and eight fabs. The site will employ 3,000 folks with an average salary of $135,000, and also bring 7,000 construction jobs to Ohio, DeWine said.
You can’t fault Gelsinger for announcing the factories: his shareholders and the world, amid a chip supply crunch, expect it. But not only should the news be seen in an historical context, it remains to be seen if Intel can meet the promises it laid out for the Ohio facilities.
In 2011, then-CEO Paul Otellini announced Intel was investing $5bn to complete Fab 42 when President Barack Obama visited an Intel facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. At the time, Fab 42 was to make 14nm chips, including smartphone processors, and create 4,000 jobs.
Ultimately, the announcement turned out to be a false promise. Intel cancelled completion of Fab 42 in 2014 after manufacturing woes and blunders in markets including mobile devices. In 2016, Intel laid off 12,000 employees to prioritize its products in the data center and the Internet of Things markets.
In 2017, then-CEO Brian Krzanich repeated the pledge to complete Fab 42, this time repackaged as a fresh announcement with President Donald Trump. Intel said it would invest $7bn to complete Fab 42 to make 7nm chips.
Intel powered up Fab 42 in Arizona in late 2020 to make not 7nm but 10nm chips. That’s the process node that was delayed for years due to critical fabrication missteps, causing Intel to lose its manufacturing lead over TSMC and Samsung.
Chipzilla hopes to do better on its commitments with Gelsinger, who wants to bring Intel back to its engineering roots.
Intel in September broke ground on more factories in Arizona, which carry a $20bn price tag. Work is also underway on manufacturing expansions in Oregon and New Mexico, and overseas in Ireland.
There’s a growing need to commit capacity to foundry customers, and to meet the higher demand for the company’s chips, an Intel spokesman told The Register in an email.
Gelsinger has stressed the “importance of building a more resilient supply chain and ensure reliable access to advanced semiconductors in the US for years to come. Today’s announcement is a critical step in our plans to fulfill these objectives,” the Intel spokesman said. ®
The draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.
The European Parliament has voted in favour of the long-debated Digital Services Act (DSA), Europe’s attempt to shift the balance of power from the hands of Big Tech and into the hands of EU residents.
MEPs voted 530 votes to 78 – with 80 abstentions – to approve the draft DSA text that will see tech giants held accountable for content on their platforms in a spate of new rules and regulations.
The move comes just a month after MEPs voted in favour of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a similar set of proposed laws that seek to impose stricter rules around tech competition in the EU and rein in the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.
The set of draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content, preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.
The Parliament introduced several changes to the initial proposal by the European Commission, including exempting small businesses from certain DSA obligations, making targeted advertising more transparent and easier to refuse, and prohibiting targeted ads for minors.
Online platforms will be prohibited from using “deceiving or nudging techniques to influence users’ behaviour through ‘dark patterns’”, according to the revised DSA draft. Large platforms will also be required to provide “at least one recommender system that is not based on profiling”.
The approved text will now be used as the mandate to negotiate with the French presidency of the Council, representing member states. The negotiation will be led by Christel Schaldemose, an MEP from Denmark.
“Today’s vote shows MEPs and EU citizens want an ambitious digital regulation fit for the future,” she said after the vote. “Online platforms have become increasingly important in our daily life, bringing new opportunities, but also new risks,” she added.
Schaldemose said it was the duty of the European Union to make sure “what is illegal offline is illegal online” and that new digital rules need to benefit consumer and citizens, not Big Tech.
She said that, if enacted and enforced correctly, the DSA has the potential to inspire other nations such as the US to take on Big Tech and “safeguard democracy” before it’s too late.
“Every modern disinformation campaign will exploit news media channels on digital platforms by gaming the system,” Haugen told MEPs in her opening statement. “If the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law,” she said.
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When FC Barcelona took to the pitch for the 2021 Spanish Super Cup final, the trophy wasn’t the only prize at stake.
Thousands of blaugrana fans were also keeping an eye on the market for FCB’s “fan token”, the club’s very own cryptocurrency. Socios, the web-based platform that pioneered fan tokens, had promised to “burn” 20,000 tokens for every goal Barcelona scored – and 40,000 if they lifted the cup.
In theory, success on the pitch would increase the scarcity of the currency, boosting its value. In practice, Barcelona lost the game and, footballing passions aside, it didn’t make much difference anyway. With 3.5m of the tokens in circulation, not to mention millions more retained by the club for future issuance, a few thousand here or there wouldn’t have moved the needle.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire thinks clubs have latched on to crypto because revenues from other sources are starting to level off, having risen reliably for decades.
“Football clubs have realised that we’re now at max broadcast revenues, with modest growth at most to look forward to,” he said.
“As far as commercial sponsors are concerned, we’re seeing deals being renewed but not with increased money. The only way to increase matchday sales is to increase prices and fans are reluctant.”
Manchester United – whether one believes the club or not – claims to have 1.1 billion fans on the planet. With revenue of £488m in 2019-20, that’s just 45p per year, per fan.
“Clubs are thinking: ‘Can we ‘find another way of extracting money out of that huge fanbase?’ That’s where tokens come in.”
When AC Milan launched a token in early 2021, it raised $6m (£4.4m) in under an hour, or about 12% of the value of the club’s record signing, Leonardo Bonucci. Paris Saint-Germain’s token, the most valuable, has a market value of $45m.
In the murky and unregulated world of crypto though, it’s hard to know how much clubs are actually making. Socios said last year it had sold $300m worth of fan tokens but would not say how much of that went to the clubs with which it partnered.
Other platforms, such as Binance, are also moving into the fan token market, indicating there is room for growth, particularly given that only a few dozen clubs have entered the market in any meaningful way.
Pedro Herrera, senior blockchain analyst at DappRadar, a marketplace for blockchain-related apps, said that most fans buy tokens for the associated perks, such as votes on small decisions about which song to play over the stadium tannoy after a goal, or entry into a draw to win a signed shirt.
“It’s a win for the fan because they feel more involved; it’s a win for the team because it’s adding a layer of monetisation; and it’s a win for the [crypto] industry because you attract the masses and it’s one step closer to mass adoption.”
Maguire isn’t against crypto but adds a more sceptical tone: “Lots of fans love crypto and in its purest form it’s great. Banks have been overcharging people for years in terms of transaction fees and if crypto can reduce those fees that’s fantastic.”
“The problem is when unscrupulous traders, particularly via social media, seek to exploit fans who think a token is a serious investment product, rather than a glorified collectible.
“It’s magic beans. So long as it’s sold as a digital Panini card, it’s OK. But when it’s being seen as a form of investment, it’s moving into uncomfortable territory.”
“It’s unregulated, it’s volatile and it’s subject to manipulation by people who own large amounts of the asset.”
Fan tokens, though, are a mere paragraph in football’s rapidly unfolding crypto saga.
In 2021, crypto sponsors piled into football and were welcomed with open arms by cash-hungry clubs, leagues and players.
Exchange app Crypto.com sponsors Italy’s Serie A, one of the world’s most glamorous leagues, while Socios is Internazionale’s shirt sponsor. EToro, a trading platform that facilitates investment in multiple cryptocurrencies, has deals with more than half of the clubs in the Premier League.
Southampton players are understood to have been offered the option to be paid bonuses in bitcoin, as part of a £7.5m-a-year deal with Coingaming Group. And in January 2021, striker David Barral made history when he became the first player in a major league to be signed with bitcoin, albeit in Spain’s third tier with Internacional de Madrid.
This should come as no surprise given the reach that big-name stars have via social media and the money they can make from promotions. Other partnerships are perhaps more unexpected. Visitors to the Twitter profile of former Republic of Ireland international Tony Cascarino might have been wrongfooted by the former striker’s sudden change of pace midway through 2021. One moment he was musing on the latest developments in the Premier League, the next he was evangelising about blockchain bank Babb (no relation to former Ireland teammate Phil) and musing that the “crypto market is on fire”.
Even in its infancy, the reputational risks of this new commercial pact between crypto and football have become all too clear. Last year, Manchester City’s deal with a mysterious firm called 3Key Technologies fell apart in a matter of days as it emerged that nobody seemed to know anything about the company or its executives.
In December, Arsenal were rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which banned a club promotion that it said was exploiting fans’ “inexperience or credulity, trivialising investment in crypto assets, misleading consumers over the risk of investment and not making it clear the ‘token’ was a crypto asset”.
“For those in sport looking for sponsorship, it’s a whole new market of opportunity but it’s a bit of a landmine you’re dealing with,” said Bill Esdaile, managing director of sports marketing agency Square in the Air.
“My gut feeling is that such a small percentage of people understand how [crypto] works that too many decisions are made on trust, thinking that if [crypto firms] say they’ve got the money, they do.”
The amounts on offer appear to be going up.
Premier League strugglers Watford have perhaps the country’s biggest crypto deal, a front-of-shirt sponsorship from Stake.com. The site offers crypto gambling, which isn’t legal in the UK but may appeal to the league’s hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
The arrangement even means that Watford players’ shirt sleeves bear the logo of Dogecoin, a “joke” currency whose value swings around wildly, often in response to tweets by Tesla multibillionaire Elon Musk.
Kieran Maguire estimates that the shirt deal could be worth up to £8m, based on the typical value of such partnerships, while an insider at Watford told MSN in August that the Dogecoin sleeve display added £700,000 into the mix.
Sums like these will become increasingly difficult for clubs to ignore, he thinks, particularly if the government goes ahead with a root-and-branch overhaul of gambling regulation that could see football lose the cash cow of shirt deals with betting firms.
“They [clubs] see the token market as slightly to one side, it won’t get picked up by the gambling review and it will help fill the gap,” says Maguire.
“Those deals of £5m to £8m could be replaced by NFT advertising and by crypto.”
In a recent paper, psychology researcher and gambling expert Dr Phil Newall warned that football sponsorship may be about to swap one risky product for another.