Ask Hackaday: Can We Do Better Than Phonebloks?

Our tips line is on fire with suggestions for us to cover the modular cell phone concept named Phonebloks. The phone’s designer states the problem as follows:

A phone only lasts a couple of years before it breaks or becomes obsolete. Although it’s often just one part which killed it we throw everything away since it’s almost impossible to repair or upgrade.

His solution is the above pictured phone, with modular components for each feature: wifi, camera, battery, etc. Rather than upgrade your entire phone, upgrade just the parts you need. A wave of followers have thrown their support behind this concept, and perhaps their hearts are in the right place hoping to reduce waste and cost. Behind the scenes here at Hackaday, however, the response has been a unanimous facepalm. The primary objection (other than design implausibilities) should be obvious: dividing the phone into exchangeable bits does not inherently reduce waste. Those bits have to go somewhere.

Now, don’t rush to the comments section to identify additional problems; there’s a juicy Reddit thread for that. Instead, we want to take the high road: Can we do better? Can we make a phone for the future that is less wasteful to produce, more easily recycled, and possibly upgradable? What would be included in its features, and how would we do it? Check out a video of the concept phone and tell us your alternatives after the break.

221 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Can We Do Better Than Phonebloks?

  1. I get a new phone every two years. The contract I’m on renews every two years, and can get a new basic phone at that time cheap. By that time the battery in the old phone has is on it’s last legs. Also I get to catch up on newer features although I’m still about three years behind. Persons as myself aren’t the problem, but are not going to be able to afford the premium these modular phones are going to cost the consumer. Personally I think more can be done fore the environment by addressing the inputs during manufacture, along with addressing how the phones are disposed of. Not only phones, but all other consumer electronics.

    1. I dunno what phone you got, but buying and using battery’s as old ones ware out would be a obvious step for many.
      I don’t know much about phone battery tech, but I had 3 spare packs for my old Nintendo DS (used two of them up as well…).

  2. mobile phone is just another cheap consumable, which was made available by mass production. 2-3 years lifespan is more than enough for the consumer to change taste, needs and the trends are changing as well. the technology advancement is the least of average consumer worries.

    it’s one of those solutions for non existing problem.

  3. Please.. criminal multibillion dollar corporations are not going to stop producing disposable trash hardware to “save” the planet or consumer’s money.

    Thats the reason everything is designed to fail. They WANT that $300 phone in a dumpster and all those lil asian slaves making new ones.

    You really want to make a difference?

    Start pushing for the practice of “Planned obsolescence” being identified as a criminal consumer fraud and start hauling CEO’s off to prison.

    1. There is small steps in that direction; Like Apple being forced to have changeable batteries by the EU.
      Unfortunately while planned obsolescence is a problem, its one we dont even reach; most phone upgrades are from people just wanting the latest shiny thing, not because their old one broke.

  4. I like the idea but I don’t think consumers would go for it. Its possible with today’s technology but it would make the phone huge which consumers don’t like. Plus you have to look at this from a “normal” person’s point of view. Everyone here is obviously technology oriented but your standard person isn’t. Most people buy any off the shelf computer or phone bc the guy at best buy (who doesn’t know much more than they do) told them this is what they need. Now imagine what this type of people will do when they have to “build” their new phone? Plus one of the biggest sales factors is the new styling. You want something that looks cool and new, if all of the components have to fit together then they all have to fit in the same shape which means your phone will always look the same. If there is a new line of slimmer blocks coming out you have to replace them all bc you don’t want the back of your phone to look like stairs. Also going back to the level of you standard consumer if you have pre-built packages for them for someone that isn’t tech-savvy they will exchange the whole phone for a newer package making the modular aspect useless. Correct me if I’m wrong but this idea is good for someone that knows a lot more than a standard consumer and there isn’t that many people like that in the world to support such a development.

  5. After all these comments… I’m not sure my answer to this issue would ever be read…. The future appears to hold wireless peripheral interface devices like smart watches and google glass in the marketing cross hairs. I think that splitting the phone from the interface devices is probably the most realistic future. This is not so much modular, but you would buy a “phone” that has the latest processing power, memory, storage, but no (or a very minimal) screen. Having a replaceable battery and memory card achieves most of the issues mentioned above, and considering the single chip technology where all of the radios are in the processor itself, it doesn’t make sense to split those out.

    In the future, I see buying a “pocket computer” and you separately buy wireless interfaces. The user interface exists on your wrist, earpiece, or glasses. Even your “Tablet” can be a wireless display for the processing power that never leaves your pocket. It’s “modular” but the modules are not attached to each other physically.

  6. I’m surprised people are being so negative about this idea. I can only guess this must be a generation of ‘hackers’ that have grown up with laptops rather than desktops. Many of these comments seem to be assuming that problems like drivers and busses are something new. Come on, we had this all in desktops since the 70s, with fairly good standardization too since at least the 80s.

    Now.. will it solve some major waste problem? Of course not. It could only ever hope to reach a RELATIVELY small niche market. The masses want small, simple and thin enough to double as a razor blade. That’s never going to happen in a modular package.

    This would be an ALMOST perfect product for someone like myself though. I want to play with my phone like a computer. I want to try different software on it. I want to try different peripherals. I don’t have to have the latest screen resolution. What I have now is out of date by a couple years and yet i enjoy watching video on it just fine! i do want to be able to continue to upgrade to the latest software though. If I could just buy a new cpu/motherboard module every couple of years I might go a decade with the same screen. When would I ever need to upgrade the speaker or microphone?

    Also, I want a slide out qwerty keyboard! Those are getting so hard to find built into actual phones that are available. I have a Samsung Stratosphere now. It was the only phone with “4G” that Verizon offered at the time with a keyboard. It sucks!! Lockup Lockup Slow Lockup!! I bet if modular phones were available a keyboard would be an optional module. And… since those tend to wear out (moving pieces) I could even replace it!! Without surgical skills!

    Hey, how about an IR module? I don’t have one of those fancy new TVs with hackable Linux computers in it yet. When I someday do it will be in our livingroom but the old tv will probably still be around in another room somewhere. My old HP Calculator could act as an IR remote. Why can’t my Android phone??? These kinds of things I could see getting built by somebody as modules for a modular phone. (No, I’m not interested in any solution that involves a dongle hanging out of the tiny little ever so fragile USB Micro port, or that plugs into the headphone jack.) Maybe I could make that one myself… I don’t see the current phone manufacturers ever going there though.

    Actually, just having a decent radio module available which is compatible with my carrier (Verizon — CDMA) would be AWESOME for me! I might buy a couple of extra of those just put in other projects, hook them to Arduinos and stuff.

    Can we do better? Well, if their design is even possible (I’m doubtful) it will be very large. It looks like legos, each piece in it’s own box. That must add bulk. I’d rather have raw boards that plug directly together with low profile connectors. Then just add a standardized case it can all go in. Maybe the back can pop off, and some sort of thickness extender ring could snap on for those that want more room for more boards. This would be better.

    Maybe that could be done today with a 3d printer and a Beaglebone (or Raspi). i’d like to try it. Is 3d acceleration there yet though? Last I checked, and making a phone IS the reason I check it wasn’t and therefore Android runs slowly. I don’t want to build my own phone just to have it’s butt get kicked by all the commercial ones! I want it so i can run today’s current software now, tomorrows then, without upgrading every two weeks AND without all the carrier and handset manufacturer (yes you Samsung!!) putting all their crapware on it that slows it down or locks it up all the time!

    Still… even if the drivers were all there and we were 3d printing our phones all over the place.. where is the 4G ready data modem with voice capability that I would need to access Verizon? (the wife LOVES Verizon so I am stuck).

    Of course, any hacker built or bought-as-modules phone is going to be thicker than the big comercially produced ones. There is no way the majority of today’s stylish zombies would go for that. Why do I give a #$%^? Anything I can wrap my fingers around is just fine by me. I’m looking at my old phone (about 3 phones ago) right now and I would guess that with the extended battery it’s up to about an inch. Maybe even more. OMG did he say an inch?!?! I don’t think I ever once had a problem with it being too big for me to use or any less comfortable because of it. I only ever stopped using it because for today’s software it’s processor is slow (as is it’s data).

    Actually… I still get the extended batteries for all my phones. It’s totally out of style I know and your phone may cut your food but I’ll use a knife for that. My phone still has power long after yours is only good as a cheap yet expensive knife.

    So… that’s why I am very happy to see somebody wants to build a modular phone. Even if their ideas might not be perfect. I don’t think it will ever catch on as more than a niche but that’s MY niche. I really think it is time for manufacturers to start catering to niches more. Cellphones are much like computers, 15 years ago or more people who never would have thought about them started buying them. There is a huge market to be had for whoever can be most stylish and the people who would have had them all along are now a niche. That niche supported an industry before the masses started buying. Why not make something for us too?

  7. All I see is people going on about how big it’s going to be. Remember the 1St hard drive? You needed a fork lift truck to move it! Its a great concept and would sell given time it would get smaller and better. Also reminds me of Lego blocks. All it needs is investment in research and design given 5 years it could be in development

  8. For starters, focus not on the phone, but on the systems that promote phone waste.

    Require purchase of all phones to be made up front. Prohibit “free with contract” deals.
    a) Putting the entire cost of the phone up front will slow the rate of phone turnover. The larger the up front cost, the more likely people are to hold on to their old one, or consider a second hand replacement. They may also consider more carefully what they need, rather than just the hype and coolness factor of lots of features. Phones with lots of devices, etc. likely to be more expensive (“Silicon is cheaper than iron” — Pournelle), so if that cost is paid up front people may be more likely to get phones with fewer extra devices that they don’t use.
    b) Many articles suggest upgrading your phone as soon as your contract expires because the price of the hardware is built into the price of service. If you don’t upgrade as soon as your contract runs out, you are still paying for hardware, but not getting anything for it. So mixing the cost of service and the cost of phone encourages waste.

    Slowing the pace of adopting new phones would not only save on the environmental costs of recycling/disposing of phones, but also potentially save by reducing the
    wastes in marketing of phones. (Consider the environmental cost of all the phone stores, the center kiosks at malls, etc., which are idle most of the time. “They’re consuming our supplies and returning nothing.” — Spock)

    Toward that end, buy your phone up front and use service that does not include payment for cost of a phone (e.g. prepaid, or just companies that don’t do the bundling of phone and service).

    e.g. I pay $30/year for cell phone service (which I use rarely, but nice to have for occasional use or for emergencies). I bought the phone a few years ago (refurbished, $30).

  9. The single biggest obstacle to making any phone like this is the SoC (the CPU+GPU+RAM). You cannot get a decent one in small quantities – you need to order them en masse, especially since the soldering is non-trivial. This is also the component you’re going to be most interested in upgrading, which is problematic.

    However, once you have the SoC, then it’s simple enough to standardize on an interface for the screen (easily sourced from replacement parts for other phones), and use I2C and GPIOs for everything else. It’s possible this could be accomplished by utilizing an existing standard by EOMA-68, but you’ll note that they have the same issue of access to boards comparable to modern smartphones – the first model is an Allwinner A20 (1 GHz Cortex A8, 1 GB RAM). Even Jolla was only able to manage a dual core 1.4 GHz CPU.

    If you can get SoC sorted out, the idea is feasible. But that’s the biggest obstacle to building a minority smartphone, let alone a custom designed one.

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