Phonebloks proposes modular build-it-yourself smartphones—but is it feasible?

phoneblok-concept-videoHere’s an interesting and creative idea: Phonebloks, a smartphone design that is entirely modular. You start with a base with a lot of pinholes in it, and attach components to it—a screen to the front, and components for storage, battery, GPS, camera, etc. to the rear. They stick in just like LEGOs.

Components would be standardized and available from different companies so you could build your own phone out of the bits and pieces you wanted, and when a part goes bad or gets too outdated, you trade it out. No more throwing away a phone because you broke the screen or it’s too slow to keep up anymore—just replace the broken bit. This video makes it look like a neat idea.

modular-phoneblokIt would have other benefits, too. Imagine a phone or tablet where you could swap in an e-ink screen if you were going to be spending a lot of time outside, or make other spur-of-the-moment swap-outs as the situation calls for.

Certainly it’s popular enough. The response from the video seems to have killed the servers on their own site; I had to view it through Google’s cache. Apparently it’s even inspired imitators who are using the idea to try to scam people for donations.

The problem is, it’s basically pie in the sky. It’s a nice enough concept, but their idea of how to get it off the ground involves using a social-media-flooding website, Thunderclap.it, to borrow the social media accounts of everyone who is interested in it and send a mass tweet and Facebook deluge from everyone at once. (Seriously? Who thought something like that was a good idea? Instead of showing support building over time, let’s all spam the social networks at the same time, that’ll show ‘em!)

And when you look a little closer at the concept, it sounds like the creator either didn’t do a good job at getting his ideas across or else was less knowledgeable about electronics than he thought he was. As Computer Engineering PhD student Dan Zhang notes on a Quora discussion of the matter, many of the components Phonebloks assigns to separate blocks are integrated into single “System on Chip” components that reduce the cost and size of modern smart appliances. Ian McCullough notes that the Phonebloks design would be more resource-intensive and wasteful than a modern phone.

Maybe it would be better to aim for some kind of middle ground. Make a phone semi-modular, with standardized interconnectors between display, system-on-chip, battery, and other parts that are fungible. Instead of separate blocks for those things that incorporate into the system-on-a-chip, make the system itself a whole block. Even that might face some of the same engineering obstacles.

But when you get right down to it, if you could replace a part of your phone, would you? It’s possible to replace cracked screens now, but the cost is intensive enough that in many cases it’s more economical just to get a new device.

Maybe it’s best just to encourage people to recycle their electronic devices instead of throwing them away. (Best Buy will recycle electronics and small appliances for free in their stores, even if you didn’t buy them there.) Still, even if they’re pipe dreams, ideas like Phonebloks are important in that they make us think about their feasibility, and ponder other ways of solving the problem of e-waste.

1 Comment on Phonebloks proposes modular build-it-yourself smartphones—but is it feasible?

  1. Good post (and Phonebloks is an interesting, if possibly unfeasible concept), but I don’t think replacing a screen costs more than a new phone. It MAY cost more than the subsidized cost to upgrade your phone and sign a new 2-year contract, where you just pay the cost of the phone (and then some) over time.

    People need to realize that their iPhones aren’t $199, they cost $650 – $850 every time they want to replace a perfectly good phone with the latest & greatest. They end up paying much more than that through inflated service fees and data charges. AT&T, Verizon, etc. aren’t stupid, and they aren’t in the business of giving expensive phones away for free. They get you in the end.

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