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How Phonebloks Could Work (and Why It Probably Won't)

By Wesley Fenlon

The upgradeable smartphone is a wonderful idea, but how's it going to work?

Samsung, Apple, and other smartphone manufacturers shipped more than 700 million phones in 2012. Thanks to the popular two-year contract model instituted by carriers like AT&T and Verizon, the smartphone industry has settled into a comfortable pattern. Customers buy subsidized phones for $100 or $200 a pop, gradually pay out more than the phone's $500-$700 market price in monthly payments, and finally buy a new model when that two year mark rolls around and the contract expires. On September 10th, a concept video called Phonebloks challenged that system, criticizing the amount of waste produced by the ending-is-better-than-mending approach to consumer electronics. The video raked in more than 7 million views in three days.

Phonebloks proposes a solution to the wasteful smartphone upgrade process and the landfills of discarded phones our habits create. Designer Dave Hakkens suggests a new type of phone, made up of modules, or bloks, that can easily be replaced by anyone. Each phone component, from the processor to the wireless chip to the flash storage to the battery, is a self-contained unit that can be unplugged from the mainboard and swapped out for something new.

Instead of throwing away an entire Phoneblok phone, you'd simply swap out the processor for a faster unit, or upgrade to a larger flash memory chip when yours starts to fill up. Even better, phones would be incredibly customizable. "You do everything in the cloud. Why not replace your storage block for a bigger battery block?" the video suggests at one point. Another suggestion: "If you love to take pictures, why not upgrade your camera?"

The idea is so simple, it feels like someone should've built a similar smartphone already. And here's where idealism and reality clash. Could a modular smartphone like the Phonebloks actually work? To try to answer that question, I reached out to Adafruit in search of some expert hardware (and hacking) knowledge. Adafruit founder and MIT engineer Limor Fried helped answer some questions about Phonebloks' viability. Short answer: This idea is probably possible, and would probably even be compatible with an operating system like Android.

"Phone makers react to demand, if consumers want replaceable batteries, screws/ways to disassemble--smart companies will react and provide," Fried wrote. "I personally like the idea of being able to take apart, fix and improve anything I own."

Modular phones would likely also require consumers to pay more and give up the compact bodies of modern smartphones.

The long answer is less optimistic. Is a modular phone this something consumers want, though? The millions of views Phonebloks has wrapped up says yes; the trends towards phones with non-removable batteries and non-expandable storage, however, imply otherwise. And while Phonebloks may mean fewer junked devices in landfills, it would likely also require consumers to pay more and give up the compact bodies of modern smartphones.

But let's go step-by-step. First: How realistic are plug-and-play smartphone components? Would they make the phone vulnerable to water and grit? Would they be able to perform as well as parts soldered onto a motherboard?

"Frequent plugging and unplugging will eventually wear down any connector or solder points holding the connectors, but if you're designing something like this--that's something you'd consider and test," writes Fried. On top of that, "Each module would need to have its own 'smarts' in some way, but that's not too tough of a challenge - there are many low-power and pretty powerful processors."

The latter potentially introduces two problems. One: Cost. To make these modules function well independently, a Phoneblok design may require duplicate components or otherwise rely on a less efficient combination of chips. Two: Size. With a less efficient layout comes a bulkier phone.

Smartphones are incredibly compact devices, and fitting all their components into a compact body is an engineering marvel. And even with Android phones trending towards bigger and bigger screens, the phones are getting thinner and lighter. Look at a teardown of the Samsung Galaxy S4, for example.

Photo credit: ifixit

Attached to this one board are a modem, CPU/GPU system-on-a-chip, NAND flash controller, audio chip, pressure sensor, Wi-FI radio, and more. And that's just one side of the board; the other side houses the more microcontrollers, power management chips, NFC, and more.

"Making lots of little things with enclosures will always be a bit more challenging in terms of costs, timing and production," writes Fried. "Injection molds for each one, testing for each one, etc. The trend for phone makers now is to jam everything in one almost solid seamless case and also have as much as possible on one chip."

Separating each and every component out into a replaceable module is likely impractical, but the Phonebloks idea could still work. Some chips would likely still be integrated into the motherboard, which would be replaceable (and cheap compared to the boards of most phones, since key components like the system-on-a-chip would be separated). Others would probably be bundled into modules containing multiple chips, like an accelerometer/gyroscope/magnetometer package.

The idea behind the Phonebloks concept really isn't that far-fetched; Fried pointed out that there are already modular computing projects out there, like Bug Labs' Blocks, that can be pieced together to offer different functions. If Phonebloks is going to run into trouble, it'll be dealing with, or competing with, major smartphone corporations. Those corporations make a profit by selling people new phones every couple years; the HDTV business has run into trouble because it can't get people to buy new hardware often enough. Will phone companies want to support a platform that encourages replacing parts piecemeal? Maybe--if they see that it won't affect existing sales too much.

The end of the video makes it sound oh-so simple to bring together tech companies and manufacturers and designers, all through a crowdsourced get-the-word-out campaign. This will be the real challenge; not building a modular, customizable, environmentally friendly phone, but convincing companies that exist to make a profit that they should put fewer phones in landfills and fewer dollars in their pockets. Then all that's left is convincing consumers that a slower, thicker, and more expensive phone is worth buying over the latest $200 model from Samsung or Apple.