Phonebloks – The DIY Smartphone
Phonebloks, an open hardware mobile phone platform with modular components, has caught the public eye recently. The concept is that users can upgrade the hardware in the phone as needed. Are you a fan of shooting photos? Then upgrade your camera from 8MP to 12MP. Do you need heavy duty storage? No problem, simply upgrade it. This video sums up the concept.
When I heard about the concept initially, it was described as the marriage of a mobile phone and Lego bricks – I was on board from the get go. Younger me was a big fan of Lego. I have strong memories of turning my bedroom into a flight testing facility and launching Lego planes I made off the top bunk bed. After each landing – or collision – onto the unforgiving carpet I’d remake the plane slightly differently hoping I’d have my own version of Kittyhawks in my bedroom. I never did catch significant air but despite many frustrated tears I kept at it – Test Flight # 2289 made it to the bedside table.
Anyway, I first came across this idea on Reddit a few months back, where after initial enthusiasm for Phonebloks it was torn apart by commenters who claimed the idea could never work – it wasn’t technically possible, the designer clearly didn’t understand basic electronics, and so on. This was disappointing as I was already a fan of the project.
Yesterday, I was delighted to see a resurgence of enthusiasm in the idea after the announcement that Motorola was to launch Project Ara. Unlike others, Motorola didn’t see Phonebloks as a joke or a pipedream. They had been working on a similar project for over a year. They met with creator of Phonebloks, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, in order to partner up and capitalise on the passionate community he was cultivating on Thunderclap.
The benefits of a phone with modular components are many. For one, it will reduce e-waste. When you drop your phone and smash your screen you won’t be forking out $500 on a new model, instead you’ll simply be replacing the screen. Additionally, it opens the market to smaller manufacturers who cannot compete against giants like Apple but instead can focus their efforts on building singular bloks.
Among those who don’t see a future for Phonebloks is ‘Popular Science’. The magazine labels the project as being ‘impossible’. It finds many problems with the concept.
The phone would be huge – Modern phones are designed so that their components neatly fit together in order to maximise space. Separate components would not be designed as such as the whole idea is that pieces can easily be removed.
Only for hard-core techies – Phonebloks hope that companies will produce their own Phoneblok components of their hardware. John Keenan, VP at Goldman Sachs, points out that self-assembled products are the domain of ‘tech geeks’ and not something he sees as viable in mainstream consumer goods.
No incentive for manufacturers – PopSci suggest that manufacturers would have to work too closely with each other to make sure Part A works correctly with Part B when connected to the base component. Furthermore, when something goes wrong, who’s at fault? Manufacturer of Part A or the maker of the base?
Another naysayer is the man himself, inventor of the cell phone, Martin Cooper. He told CNN that while he thinks the concept is ‘well-meaning’, it will cost more, be bigger, be heavier and less reliable. All problems for the end consumer.
Whatever happens down the road, whether Motorola and Phonebloks can bring this to market and disrupt the industry, or if the project grinds to a halt, it’s great to see true innovation in mobile technology. Not a fingerprint scanner in sight.