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Mobile Communications

The Modular Phone: Phoneblocks, One Year On

It started with an idea: what if phones could be built like Lego? Then came a video:

“We had an aim of reaching 500 people with our YouTube post,” says Tomas Halberstad, Head of Communications for Phonebloks. “That being said, we wanted this to spread.” And spread it did. One Thunderclap, 20 million video views, and numerous news stories later and modularity is being touted as a real possibility for the future of phones.

The Inception

The concept is simple; instead of throwing away phones when they go caput or become obsolete, just replace individual parts on a completely customisable device. So if you want a bigger camera, more memory or a longer lasting battery, you just add the corresponding module to the motherboard, kind of like electronic Lego. This reduces waste and creates, as the organisation calls it, ‘a phone worth keeping.’

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The idea came to Phonebloks founder Dave Hakkens when he wanted to get his broken camera fixed. “Though only one part was broken, the lens motor, there was no way to fix it,” Halberstad explains. “Repair shops and manufacturer alike told him to buy a new camera.” After some research into eWaste and this throwaway behaviour, Dave found that mobile phones were one of the biggest culprits for waste. “He decided to focus his attention towards a repairable mobile phone, a modular phone,” says Halberstad. “He presented his idea as part of his graduation project for Design Academy Eindhoven and took it from there.”

One Year On

That video was published just over a year ago, and Phonebloks lives on. Offers were made by investors, but as Hakkens says in his video, the goal wasn’t to set up a new phone company, but to change the mind-set of existing companies. So what’s the grand plan Phonebloks and Halberstad have to do this? “The short answer is we play it by ear.”

“We started building a community of individuals all supporting our idea. We’re a big community that wants to be heard, and by showing the industry that lots and lots of people want this change, they’re inclined to change. After all, it’s their customers we are talking about. Independence is also key; not being tied to one company.”

Phonebloks didn’t have to start entirely from scratch, however. Several companies have debuted their own modular concept phones in the wake of that video. Motorola’s Project Ara, ZTE’s Eco Mobius, Xiaomi’s Magic Cube and even a modular Smartwatch have appeared in the past year. “We were more encouraged than surprised. Modularity has always been around in many industries. Even the mobile phone industry has, prior to Phonebloks, seen some attempts.”

Project Ara is the concept with the highest profile, and has formed a partnership with Phonebloks – allowing the online community Phonebloks has built up to talk about what they do and don’t want. “Project Ara is all Google. What we’re given is insight to the project and we get to provide input. So far we’ve seen early prototypes and a developer’s kit, but a full debut isn’t too far away. Ara will release in some version in Q1 2015. It’s coming along nicely.”

Also teaming up with Phonebloks is German microphone and headphones manufacturer Sennheiser, but not everyone is sold on the concept. Various media outlets from WhatCulture to the New York Times said that the concept was flawed and would never catch on. But Halberstad is unfazed. “Most people criticising our idea, or the general idea of modular consumer electronics, seem to be doing it from an armchair perspective.”

“If we did not believe in modularity and the ingenuity within the engineering community we would not be working day and night for this to happen. Of course it can be done. We have one of the biggest companies in the world making it work right now.”

eWaste and the Future

Given unlimited options, what would the perfect modular phone look like? “Built through open innovation, on an open source [platform], made for the whole world. The parts themselves would be highly repairable and recyclable or even biodegradable. And the materials used would be sourced both in an ethical and environmentally sustainable way. It would be, as we say, a phone worth keeping.”

Halberstad explains that one of the organisation’s aims, apart from modularity, is circular economy. Estimates put total volumes of eWaste at around 50 million tonnes per year. “It’s hard to get accurate numbers [on how much of that is from phones], but those that are available say that the percentage of mobile phone waste, in relation to all eWaste is not that great.”

“However, this is because a mobile phone does not weigh nearly as much as a desktop computer or a TV. If you look at the number of units discarded and the level of recycling within each product segment, then mobile phones are the worst; [because these represent the] most units discarded, by far, and [the] lowest rate of recycling. And, mobile phones is the segment that is growing the fastest.”

“If we can get people to discard (not even repair or recycle) just a small percentage of their phone, and then discard their whole phone at a much lower rate than today, we would have a massive positive impact on eWaste streams in the mobile phone segment.”

As if changing the multi-billion dollar phone industry isn’t enough, the eventual goal is modularity applied to all electronics. Phonebloks seem unfazed. “It’s happening already. Just yesterday I saw two concepts for modular smart watches. Getting a small mobile device running the scalability into larger devices; tablets, computers, TVs, is just a corporate decision away.”

 

Dan Swinhoe is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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