Phonebloks is a modular smartphone concept created and designed by Dave Hakkens, from the Netherlands. The concept aims to reduce electronics waste, to offer incredible customization, and to reduce upgrade costs associated with the 1-2 year upgrade cycle. By attaching individual third-party components – bloks – to a main board, a user would create a personalized smartphone. These bloks can be replaced at will if they break or the user wishes to upgrade, reducing the cost of upgrading to the user, much like the current desktop PC system of upgrading individual components. Bloks would be available in Blokstore, “an app store for hardware” where users could buy new and used bloks as well as sell back their old ones (1).
The idea of Phonebloks has been significantly embraced by people who believe the concept is promising. Hakkers has gathered support for the concept through the platform Thunderclap from almost 980.000 people, and the concept video has received more than 19 million views on YouTube and been shared on social networks more than 700,000 times. The project has also received support from the actor Elijah Wood and television correspondent Jessica Northey. However, there are a lot of arguments if this concept is viable. There are concerns that technical barriers are too many and that the concept demands a huge amount of money in order to make Phonebloks a competitor to the smartphone industry (2).
But there is some great news, as Motorola announced Project Ara in late October, a platform that promises the same modularity that the Phonebloks campaign was promoting, and has also partnered with the inventor of the Phonebloks campaign for this project. The concept is almost the same, but instead of bloks ‘clicked’ together like Legos, there is an endoskeleton as the base of the phone, and modules that make up the phone. The display, following the Phonebloks concept, is also likely to be its own module. Moreover, while Phonebloks seem kind of bulky and not close to todays trend for thinner and lighter smartphones, Project Ara seems more promising in some early designs Motorola has illustrated. Even though it is pretty soon to have many details, there are still an enormous number of challenges that such a design would face (3).
The first would be from a purely hardware perspective, as there is an unavoidable tradeoff between volumetric efficiency and modularity in such a design. While modern smartphones are effectively a tight stack of PCB, battery, and display, this adds in an entire interface for each module that connects them together.
The second issue in this case would be regulatory, as the FCC only tests single configurations for approval. Such a design would be incredibly challenging to get approval because of unpredictable behaviors of the combination of different modules in one setup.
The final major issue is that it is difficult to see such an initiative succeeding. While the project has gathered a lot of enthusiastic support, this does not always mean that enthusiasts can influence the market. The trend of the technology market right now is completely integrated designs in order for the industry to satisfy consumers’ demand for thinner and lighter smartphones and lower production costs for the industry itself (4).
However, the fact that Google, who until recently owned Motorola and just sold it to Lenovo, held onto the Advanced Technology and Project division that was working on Project Ara suggests that the technology giant makes plans for further investment to the project, which cannot be sound more promising (5).
Spyros Adamopoulos (373896)