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?