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Phonebloks : Can Modular Smartphones be more than a brilliant armchair theory ?

By Surajkumar Harikumar on Saturday 14th of Sep 2013

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Smartphones are selling like hot cakes. Android is rumored to have around 1 Billion activations in the 5 years of its life, and Apple recently revealed over 700 million activations. That is a huge number, coming close to fragments of the world’s population in a few years. Everyone is psyched about getting the latest and best new phone, and they are changing hardware and software at breakneck speeds. Every time a new smartphone is bought, and old one is thrown away. The way market is now, it is easier, more economical to toss in your year-old smartphone with a slightly cracked screen or ageing battery, than to attempt to fix it and hold on to what quickly becomes an antique device.

On September the 10th, Dave Hakkens posted Phonebloks as a concept video on YouTube, as an attempt to break this vicious cycle by proposing customizable smartphones made from individual modules or blo(c)ks . It has raked in over 8 million views in 4 days,

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDAw7vW7H0c&w=420&h=315]

The idea presented here is very similar to the very hackable Desktop PC, where users can essentially build a device out of many smaller modules. In Desktops, users could buy a new Motherboard or Graphics card if they felt the old one was wearing out. Here the phone is re-imagined like an electrical bread-board, where users can add ad remove individual components with ease. The Processor, Battery, Storage, WiFi, Speakers, Camera, Screen will all be separate blocks which fit onto the board, and gel together to make a working smartphone.

The really enticing idea here is customization. The designer claims that if a user doesn’t use much storage, he can swap the storage block out for a larger battery. If you don’t really use the onboard speakers, swap it out for a brilliant camera . If anything goes wrong, or if you just feel like having a better processor, head out and buy that block, plug it in, and voila.

phonebloks_thumb1

While this is one really wacky and ‘wish upon a star’  kind of idea, it does leave a string of questions in its wake regarding its feasibility. Off the bat, phones like this are likely to be much bulkier and heavier than current  phones. This is understandable since modern phones pack an amazing amount of computing power into a tiny handheld device. They are nearing the power of an average Netbook in a tiny hand-held brick. This is majorly because smartphone makers are smart enough to cram more features, components, and ICs wherever possible.

LEGO like smartphone raises many questions about uniform standards, compact design, and component waste

A classic example is how the designers over at Apple saw the power button on the iPhone, and decided to re-invent it as a fingerprint scanner with a Sapphire screen, and an NFC scanner to boot, as seen in the iPhone 5S. The Galaxy S3 and the S4 are nearly the same size but are very different in terms of how powerful the devices are, and what they can do. This is in part because of the evolving processor technology, and SoC design, and also because designers look at things as inconspicuous as the space around the screen, and see space to add a few modules.

Making modular smartphones will probably mean that phones would initially be less powerful, and we wouldn’t see great design for a while, that phones may be initially quite bulky and squared off, and that designers would have a lot of challenges ahead of them to prettify this Lego Smartphone

samsung_galaxy_s4_s3_comparison_01

Another major concern here is how the individual modules will communicate and send/receive information. It would be quite difficult for processors, cameras, WiFi modules all to send/receive information using the same set of pins, and coming up with this would require a lot of new standards for modules to talk to each other, one that would have to be uniformly followed by all manufacturers.

We’ve seen equally far-fetched ideas come to life before

This brings us to the most difficult part of the pitch, getting major smartphone makers to buy into this idea. While the designer makes it sound very simple, it will prove very hard for companies to invest huge amounts of money in an unproven concept, and collaborate with other companies to sell modules which would fetch them less revenue and profit as compared to a  full smartphone. Dave Hakkens put forward a crowdspeaking campaign, involving people uniformly retweeting  and sharing the idea on social sites to grab the corporates’ attention which is a very 21st century way to promote ideas, but may just fall short. ON the other hand, we could see new companies coming forward that specialize in making the Bluetooth chip or the speaker block, giving scope for loads of innovation.

Nevertheless this concept has brought up a lot of big questions, like uniform standards. Smartphones now are like the charging cables of ages past, where each company had its own standard, and refused to change until someone stood up and demanded for microUSB cables. Smartphone today need more uniformity, and this may require sacrificing brilliant design in the short run. But we’ve seen crazier and equally amazing things in recent times, like the LeapMotion controller, Elon Musk’s HyperLoop design, Canary for security, the Oculus Rift, and bendable screens.

In conclusion, the 2-and-a-half minute video (above) shows an idea which could make smartphones much easier to repair, much more customizable, which is in for the long-haul. It also makes us think about the current state of smartphones, and shows us how far yet we need to travel on the road to technological singularity, and optimal design.

phonebloks-logo

VIA Tested
SOURCEWebsite
IMAGE CREDIT TechRepublic
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