Blockheads: The Modular Phone Concept


phoneblok components

(Header image: Phonebloks)

Everyone loves having a flashy smartphone in their pocket, but the current style of manufacturing is not without its problems. According to the BBC, 1.8 billion phones will be sold this year and 1.5 billion will either get thrown away or never used again. The environmental cost is high, and the workers who break the scrapped components down suffer for it.

There is, however, an idea that responds to this “replace, not repair” mentality, and while it’s in its early stages it could prove to be quite fruitful. A Dutch designer called Dave Hakkens has come up with something quite unusual: a modular smartphone with components that can replaced and swapped out to the owner’s liking. Known as Phoneblok,it’s designed to extend the life of the phone considerably and cut down on needless environmental damage.

Comparisons to Lego bricks have been made on several occasions, which is potentially helpful: the idea of Phonebloks is as something that be easily and painlessly customised. Indeed, the advantages of Phoneblok are twofold: it means that broken or outdated components can be replaced without scrapping an entire phone, in response to the locked-in battery companies like Apple have apparently perpetuated.

It also means consumers have a lot more choice over what goes into their hardware. Hakkens uses the example of someone who used cloud computing extensively: rather than having a lot of storage on the phone, he might swap some of it out for more battery power. If someone wants a particular camera brand, the phoneblok can be slotted in painlessly, and so on.

There’s even, according to the Phonebloks website, scope for special requirements. There could be phonebloks made for solar batteries, screens designed for the blind…the basic hardware could be upgraded into new forms like tablets or specialised cameras. The possibilities are practically endless.

If this all sounds too good to be true…you’re right. Phonebloks, though exciting, is still just an idea that’s caught the imagination of a lot of people. As it stands, the idea comes with its own list of setbacks: we’re not sure yet if a modular phone is possible with current technology. There’s issues of practicality: a modular phone would have to be made of sturdy stuff to survive trouser pocket transport, and this in turn cuts down on the “sex appeal” that makes devices like the iPhone so popular. And it’s a fact people like getting shiny new gadgets: we’ve reached a point in our society where we see a new phone every couple of years as a necessary upgrade.

Despite its unsexy form factor and technological hurdles, though, we both love the idea of Phonebloks and see why it might be needed. If people can get past their own preconceptions about what technology should be, Phonebloks could be a brilliant and important step in how we look at our gadgetry.

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