Phonebloks – the modular phone is happening

modular phoneLast year I wrote about Phonebloks, an idea for creating customisable, upgradeable phones. There was a little video about how it would work, pressing the various elements into a backing plate, Lego-style. It’s a neat idea, and an environmentally friendly one too, as modular designs are much more repairable than sealed units like the iPhone. If one part breaks, you can just swap in a new component rather than having to replace the whole phone. This is no small problem – 1.5 billion mobile phones are currently thrown away every year.

Phonebloks was an online campaign, nothing more. There was just one guy behind it, with the aim of getting enough online attention to tell the mobile phone industry that this was something people wanted. Remarkably, it seems to have done the job. The video launched in September last year, and in October Motorola announced that they’d been giving some thought to this already, and they’d like to partner with Phonebloks to make it happen. The result is a modular phone research project, Project Ara. Motorola (now owned by Google) are bringing the tech, and Phonebloks are rallying a community of makers and designers.

What Project Ara is out to do is really quite ambitious – the plan is to create an open source hardware platform for mobile phones. Google has already provided the software in the form of Android. Ara would be a basic phone handset that anyone could then design components for – cameras, keyboards, speakers, whatever you require from your phone.  “We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software” said Motorola, “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

They’re not the only ones spotting the opportunity. ZTE displayed a concept modular phone called the Eco-Mobius in Las Vegas last week. It might not work – there have been brief and unsuccessful modular phone experiments in the past, but perhaps the time is right for this one. If it keeps a few million phones a year off the scrapheap, it’ll be well worthwhile.

15 Comments on “Phonebloks – the modular phone is happening”

  1. Kieran Harrod January 22, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

    I love the idea behind this but fear it’ll be something of a dead end, perhaps a good bit of marketing for a short while for Motorola.

    I see a couple of large stumbling blocks, firstly the whole connectivity interface which is required to plug elements in. Most manufacturers are doing everything they can to reduce the size of a devices internals, so Apple boasted a while back that they’d fitted a bigger battery in their macbooks by ditching the removable battery, dropping the interface elements required to have a removable battery. This theory has alway appeared on the iPhone, no replaceable battery, and it’s really only Samsung left who are selling phones with removable batteries. Motorola themselves with their flagship Moto X, Google Nexus(es), HTC and Nokia (now Microsoft) all have built in batteries.

    And it’s not restricted to batteries. I don’t get the internals of phones really but repairability scores keep dropping with items soldered directly onto boards.

    So providing MORE interface seems utterly in contrast to current designs.

    Secondly phones are so much about fashion. It’s just not fashionable to keep your old phone going for another year. I’m not thinking about manufacturers outdating phones with new software rather about how you look. There’s certainly some accusation to be flung at carriers who give us a sense of right to upgrade as soon as we can but mostly it’s about being cool.

    I’ve spoken to people I know who’ve asked my advice on upgrades, they almost always time and again get the latest device despite me suggesting they either buy an old model outright and get a cheap contract (I got a nexus 4 and a £7.50pm deal, estimated saving over 18 months? £280) or they choose an old model to get on contract at half the price a month. These are folks who don’t use the features of cutting edge devices, they just browse the web and facebook.

    I’d love to see this break this mould, but I’m not convinced!

    • Jeremy January 23, 2014 at 11:38 am #

      That’s all true, but there are parallel trends. One of them is a growing movement that recognises that repairability matters, and who don’t want everything locked down for them. That’s the opposite of Apple’s philosophy, but Apple’s relentless pursuit of that is actually driving the trend the other way. If you’re even semi-competent at maintaining your machines, having everything soldered in is a good reason not to buy a Mac. There’s room for both approaches though.

      I very much doubt that modular phones will be ‘the future’ and that everyone will have one, but the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people signed up to pilot the scheme shows that there is demand. They might all be Linux fans for all I know, but there’s plenty of them.

      If they solve the basic problems, my guess is this will be a niche product with a large and dedicated user base, but you won’t necessarily find modular phones at Phones4U.

      • DevonChap January 31, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

        Its going to be a fashion thing then. Instead of showing off “I have the latest …” its “I have the most sustainable ….” Still just fashion thinking, nothing better, nothing worse.

        • Jeremy January 31, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

          Is Linux fashionable? That’s what I just compared it to.

          • DevonChap January 31, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

            Amongst geeks, yes. We display to gain status verses our peers, often self selected.

      • Kieran Harrod February 1, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

        I joined the pilot scheme, it’s pretty intense.

        ZTE’s version is interesting too.

  2. Jeremy February 1, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Ok, suit yourself. I think you’re working pretty hard to find something to object to about it.

    • DevonChap February 1, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

      What am I objecting to? It’s called analysis. You should try it.

      • Jeremy February 1, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

        I guess I have a different understanding of fashion. My linux fan friends would be horrified by your analysis.

        • DevonChap February 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

          Its a positional good. Fashion is all about that.

          • Jeremy February 2, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

            Well that’s where I disagree with you. I think it’s a good idea that may open up a whole new way of creating and upgrading mobile phones. It has merit as an idea well beyond the exclusivity of fashion – and as I say, I don’t think it will be fashionable.

            But that’s my opinion on what is a purely theoretical technology at the moment, so if you see it differently I’m not going to say you’re wrong.

          • DevonChap February 3, 2014 at 10:56 am #

            You yourself say that you don’t think this is the future and that it will likely only have a niche following. That suggests those who use it will be doing so for ‘fashion’ reasons, that they want to mark themselves out from others. It won’t be a mass fashion, but a niche one. There are many different types of fashions.

            How many Linux users do so because they want to separate themselves from ‘normal’ people who use Windows. Using Linux shows you are ‘better’ at computers than them. Is that not the point of fashion?

  3. Jeremy February 3, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Not sure you’ve grasped the usefulness of Linux or why people use it, which is probably why you’re missing my point.

    Programmers use Linux because it’s hugely adaptable and customizable and not locked down like Windows. Universities and academics use it for the same reason. The military use it because it’s much more secure than Windows and less prone to crash. Government departments and businesses use it to save money. It is widely used across the developing world because it is free, and because you can run lower energy machines on it. Others adopt it to support open source development. Perhaps a tiny minority install it to show off, but ‘I run Ubuntu’ is hardly a winning chat-up line.

    Similarly, the modular phone is just going to be a better option for some people, but not for everybody. Niche product does not necessarily imply fashion.

    • DevonChap February 3, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      I understand why some people use Linux. But why do they bang on about it and how much better it is over Windows? Linux now has a wide range of support that it is a sensible choice for lots of things but 10 years ago it was just for geeky types and then it was most certainly a fashion.

      You really don’t get the status thing do you. It isn’t just about sex but with social hierarchies and if you can’t compete in one aspect you choose another. One of the reasons I have a different approach to income inequality, Income currently = status. Equalize incomes and that status competitions moves to other things.

  4. Jeremy February 3, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    Do people bang on about it? I don’t know anyone who does that. I mean, have you ever met an Apple fan?

    I do get the status thing, and don’t let my facetious comment about the pulling power of Ubuntu distract you. I just disagree that running Linux is a status thing. Or that owning a modular phone will be a status thing.

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