Buy an iPhone and you might get 4-5 years of official software updates. Android phones typically get 1-3 years of updates… if they get any updates at all. But there are ways to breathe new life into some older Android phones.
If you can unlock the bootloader, you may be able to install a custom ROM like LineageOS and get unofficial software updates for a few more years.
The folks behind postmarketOS want to go even further: they’re developing a Linux-based alternative to Android with the goal of providing up to 10 years of support for old smartphones.
That’s the goal anyway. Right now the developers have only taken the first steps.
Right now postmarketOS is a touch-friendly operating system based on Alpine Linux that runs on a handful of devices including the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Google Nexus 4, 5, and 7 (2012), and several other Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Sony smartphones. There are also ports for some non-Android phones such as the Nokia N900 and work-in-progress builds for the BlackBerry Bolt Touch 9900 and Jolla Phone.
Note that when I say the operating system runs on those devices, I basically mean it boots. Some phones only have network access via a USB cable, for instance. None of the devices can actually be used to make phone calls.
But here’s the cool thing: the developers are hoping to create a single kernel that works with all supported devices, which means that postmarketOS would work a lot like a desktop operating system, allowing you to install the same OS on any smartphone with the proper hardware. You might still need a bit of custom code for each device, but a shared kernel should make porting postmarketOS to new devices a lot simpler.
At this point the developers behind postmarketOS are a long way from creating a fully functional OS that works on a single phone, let alone an operating system that will provide a decade of software updates for dozens of different devices. But it’s a laudable goal that could help keep your aging phones useful (and secure) long after your phone maker stops pushing official updates.