Phonebloks Portends An Enthusiast-Class Modular Hardware Future For Smartphones - HotHardware
Phonebloks Portends An Enthusiast-Class Modular Hardware Future For Smartphones

Phonebloks Portends An Enthusiast-Class Modular Hardware Future For Smartphones

The maker space has seen its share of modular hardware projects, to be sure, (including ones pertaining to handsets), but one Dave Hakkens is looking to push things even further with Phonebloks, which is essentially a set of modules that create a complete smartphone when combined.

The idea is that a handset can be broken down into individual components; for example, there could be a storage module, a battery module, a camera module, a display module, and so on. Thus, if for example you aren’t happy with your smartphone’s terrible camera, instead of replacing the whole unit, you could simply swap in a new camera module and get a nice upgrade. The operating system could be Android, or Windows Phone 8, or Firefox OS, or what have you.


All of these modules would be attached to a simple board, and the whole unit would be held together by just a couple of screws.

This sounds quite a bit like what enthusiasts do with their PCs all the time. Need a boost for better gaming graphics? Pop in a higher-end GPU. Looking for better storage performance? Drop in a speedy SSD to run your OS and apps and relegate your slower HDD to storage only. And so on.

The mobile market has engaged a slightly different clientele that the enthusiast PC market (or at least has engaged the same people in a very different way), because the phone you buy is the phone you have until you upgrade to a whole new handset; there’s no joy brought about by carefully selecting your preferred components, poring over specs and reviews and prices to put together the right rig at the right price.


With the paradigm presented by Phonebloks, there could be an explosion of manufacturers that specialize in one component or the other, and it could allow users to customize their phones according to their preferences and needs. For example, pixel junkies could cough up a pretty penny for a better display, while digital packrats might opt for a lower-res screen in favor of a larger storage module, and shutterbugs might roll with a premiere camera module closer to Nokia’s 41MP capabilities as opposed to a functional but unimpressive 5MP part.


To be clear, Phonebloks itself hasn’t produced an actual product yet, and in fact its big campaign (ostensibly to raise funds and garner industry partnerships) hasn’t even launched yet. And frankly, it appears as though Hakkens is more of an industrial designer than an engineer, which is why the design of Phonebloks looks incredible despite there not being any prototypes available to date.

Still, it’s not completely unreasonable that such a modular phone could become a reality in the not-too-distant future. True, there must be a substantial amount of work done to develop a platform onto which a variety of manufacturers could build in order for all components to work together--but that’s what the PC market is, after all. Why couldn’t the mobile market do the same?
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Commendable idea, and reminds me of a product that actually does (or did) exist, Bug Labs' Blocks:

There was a wave of press about it several years ago, but I haven't heard much about it since. This sounds like the same concept with miniaturized components that would comfortably fit into the size and shape of a mobile phone.

I wonder, though, has an engineer has even looked at this? I'm not an engineer, but I think it's safe to say this is a severe oversimplification of the ease with which the components of a modern smartphone might interact with one another — via a magical pegboard. Just …everything… about the problem is so much more complicated.

For instance, if the pieces attach to each other mechanically, every interface is prone to failure, and how would you know which one failed? Tightly integrated devices have fewer points of potential failure, which is important for something you carry with you 24/7.

An iPhone has two ports, four buttons, and one switch, yet people have to bring them into Apple stores all the time because they can't figure out what's wrong with them.

I think if the manufacturers of integrated devices have sufficiently good recycling programs (and I'm not sure that they do), such devices can have lower environmental impact, and will remain simpler for (read: usable by) consumers.

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