Many of you have probably heard it before: Phonebloks. It’s a concept for a modular smartphone, where components can easily be swapped. The incentive here is to produce a phone which is customizable, both in personal taste and when choosing which components are the most important to you, whether it be battery life, camera performance or anything else.
While the Dutch designer Dave Hakkens was certainly not the first person to come up with such a concept, he did manage to generate a lot of buzz and excitement over the concept.
This eventually led to Motorola announcing that they had been working on a formerly secret project formonths, named ‘Project Ara’, essentially the Phonebloks concept. This certainly takes the concept a leap further towards becoming a reality. While the investment of a large company like Motorola is certainlyessential for the product, it is certainly still very far from becoming mainstream; if feasible at all.
Before we discuss the downsides, let’s explore another angle of the concept. The rise of 3D printing and its probably inevitable domination, has many implications. Especially in combination with the Phonebloks concept. Think about it – at some point we might actually be able to physically 3D print attachable parts, or ‘bloks’, onto our phones, or even your self-made chassis.
Now this sounds great – and it’s hard not to get excited in the wave of enthusiasm – but we must perform a reality check. There are many downsides to a modular device. Firstly, it is no secret that integration (of components) decreases the space and energy usage of components. It is a large part of the reason why consumer electronics keep on getting smaller. The only comparable modular system that currently exists are desktop PCs, where most components can easily be interchanged. Now consider the space inefficiency of desktops – we want to apply such a system to what is arguably the most portable product we tend to own.
A similar effort, but then for notebooks, was made by Intel, named ‘Whitebook’ (2006). Despite notebooks having a lesser need for ultra-portability, and such a large partner as Intel leading the project, it was still unsuccessful. Around the same time Apple started pushing for more integrated hardware with the first MacBooks Airs, and if anything, manufacturers have followed the trend of integrating more hardware instead of the opposite: making it more open, repairable and customizable.
Smartphones already have a lot more integrated circuitry, for instance, most SoCs (System on a Chip) these days have a wireless adapter, memory controller, GPU, modem and Bluetooth built in. If all thesecomponents would have to be swappable, not only would they all have to be removed out of the SoC, but another huge downside of this concept is that everything has to be able to connect with everything, everywhere. For instance, where memory uses a specific and optimized connection for its purposes, it would have to use a universal connector. Something in the direction of PCIe most likely, but such connections come with downsides: they will take up a much more space, and likely draw a lot more power.
Power is another pressing issue. Today’s smartphones with all their integrated circularity already have an arguably poor battery life. Modularity will not only increase power consumption significantly, it will also decrease the effective battery size; much like how removable batteries contain less capacity thantheir integrated counterparts. Though of course, users will have the ability to increase the battery capacity.
While there seem to be a lot of downsides of the Phonebloks concept, it does certainly have advantages. For one, it managed to conceive an insane amount of popularity, while little probably know about Intel’s ‘Whitebook’. Furthermore, smartphones are very personal nowadays, and people prefer customizing it.
But perhaps the most relevant argument of all is the prevention of electronic waste. Modern phones arenot built to last. When one component is broken, or the user simple finds it outdated, we throw away our phone. Phonebloks can be customized constantly. As your need changes, your phone changes, and your final phone might not have a signal component left of your original setup. Electronic waste is a major problem these days, and as smartphones are one of its biggest causes, Phonebloks
could be a stepforward in reducing it.
Google kept Motorola’s “Advanced Technologies and Projects” department when they sold Motorola to Lenovo, and using that team, they are rumored to be releasing a modular developer model this year, and a consumer one next year. One thing’s for sure – it’ll be very intriguing to see if it will catch on.