Lost in the hubbub of Google I/O last week was this blog post from Kevin Purdy of iFixit, which tells the inside story of how Samsung announced a “revolutionary” upcycling program in 2017, delayed it for years, and eventually gutted it before shipping a pale imitation of the original idea. iFixit was actually involved in the initial 2017 announcement, and the repair outfit says that after endorsing the original idea with its brand and stamp of approval, Samsung never delivered on its promises.
Despite the 2017 announcement of an upcycling program, the code didn’t ship until April 2021, when Samsung finally launched a beta version of “Galaxy Upcycling at Home.” This program lets users turn end-of-life Samsung phones into smart home sensors that could be paired with Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem. In our launch coverage of Galaxy Upcycling at Home, we called it “a very modest starting point.” It was nice to see Samsung thinking about the piles of e-waste it dumps into the world, so we tried to be nice, but turning a many-hundred-dollar phone into a light sensor or sound sensor seemed like a waste.
We also hoped that the program would dramatically expand, say, by allowing users to unlock the bootloaders of devices Samsung decided to no longer support so that the community could keep them running and relevant. The Raspberry Pi is a good benchmark for what an open device can be like, with thousands of uses and a ton of custom-build operating systems. A retired smartphone could easily match this functionality, plus it has a touchscreen, speakers, a battery, and usually more horsepower than a Pi.
iFixit was initially given an inside look at the project back in 2017, liking it so much that it endorsed the project and lent its name to the marketing materials. To hear iFixit tell the story, bootloader unlocking was actually the original plan. Samsung was going to let users replace the shipping Android OS with whatever they wanted, like builds of LineageOS or some other custom OS. Samsung was also going to launch an open source marketplace where users could submit ideas and software for repurposing old Galaxy devices. iFixit called the original plan “novel” and “revolutionary.”
“We were so excited,” iFixit writes, “that when Samsung asked us to help launch the product in the fall of 2017, we jumped at the chance. You’ll see iFixit’s name and logo all over Samsung’s original Galaxy Upcycling materials.”
iFixit went to Samsung HQ in South Korea to see prototypes of the project, and after testing working software, iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens actually helped announce the project on stage at Samsung’s developer conference in 2017.
Despite all the pomp and circumstance, iFixit says, “The actual software was never posted. The Samsung team eventually stopped returning our emails. Friends inside the company told us that leadership wasn’t excited about a project that didn’t have a clear product tie-in or revenue plan.”
iFixit calls the version of the program that launched in April “nearly unrecognizable” to what it originally endorsed. What used to be an ambitious plan now barely makes any sense financially. iFixit rightfully points out that if you really want something as simple as a light sensor or sound monitor, at this point you’re better off selling the phone and buying a purpose-built sensor. Samsung’s on-rails functionality is so simple that it can be replicated by a $30 sensor, and you’re sure to get more than that from a working device on the secondary market, especially due to another limitation of the program: it only extends back to the 3-year-old Galaxy S9.
We’ll let iFixit have the final word:
“Samsung, like every manufacturer, should set their old phones free. Open up their bootloaders. Let people use their cameras, sensors, antennas, and screens for all kinds of purposes, using whatever software people can dream up. The world needs fun, exciting, and money-saving ways to reuse older phones, not a second-rate tie-in to yet another branded internet-of-things ecosystem.”