One of the first ideas that an engineer in training is introduced to is the idea of modularity. This is the concept that every problem, no matter how big, can be broken down into a subset of smaller problems that are interlinked. The idea behind this is that you can design solutions specific to the problem space rather than trying to solve everything in one fell swoop, something that is guaranteed to be error prone and likely never to achieve its goals. Right after you’re introduced to that idea you’re also told that modularity done for its own sake can lead to the exact same problems so its use must be tempered with moderation. It’s this latter point that I think the designers of Phonebloks might be missing out on even though as a concept I really like the idea.
For the uninitiated the idea is relatively simple: you buy yourself what equates to a motherboard which you can then plug various bits and pieces in to with one side being dedicated to a screen and the other dedicated to all the bits and pieces you’ve come to expect from a traditional smartphone. Essentially it’s taking the idea of being able to build your own PC and applying it to the smartphone market done in the hope of reducing electronic waste since you’ll only be upgrading parts of the phone rather than the whole device at a time. The lofty idea is that this will eventually become the platform for everyone and smartphone component makers will be lining up to build additional blocks for it.
As someone who’s been building his own PCs for the better part of 3 decades now I think the idea that the base board, and by extension the interconnects it has on it, will never change is probably the largest fundamental flaw with Phonebloks. I’ve built many PCs with the latest CPU socket on them in the hopes that I could upgrade on the cheap at a later date only to find that, when it came time to upgrade, another newer and far superior socket was available. Whilst the Phonebloks board can likely be made to accommodate current requirements its inevitable that further down the track some component will require more connections or a higher bandwidth interface necessitating its replacement. Then, just as with all those PCs I bought, this will also necessitate re-buying all the additional components, essentially getting us into the same position as we are currently.
This is not to mention the fact that hoping other manufacturers, ones that already have a strong presence in the smartphone industry, will build components for it is an endeavor that’s likely to be met with heavy resistance, if it’s not outright ignored. Whilst there are a couple companies that would be willing to sell various components (Sony with their EXMOR R sensor, ARM with their processor, etc.) they’re certainly not going to bother with the integration, something that would likely cost them much more than any profit they’d see from being on the platform.
Indeed I think that’s the biggest issue that this platform faces. Whilst its admirable that they’re seeking to be the standard modular platform for smartphones the standardization in the PC industry did not come about overnight and took the collaboration of multiple large corporations to achieve. Without their support I’m struggling to see how this platform can get the diversity it needs to become viable and as far as I can tell the only backing they’ve got is from a bunch of people willing to tweet on their behalf.
Fundamentally I like the idea as whilst I’m able to find a smartphone that suits the majority of my wants pretty easily there are always things I would like to trade in for others. My current Xperia Z would be a lot better if the speakerphone wasn’t rubbish and the battery was capable of charging wirelessly and I’d happily shuffle around some of the other components in order to get my device just right. However I’m also aware of the giant integration challenge that such a modular platform would present and whilst they might be able to get a massive burst of publicity I’m skeptical that it will turn into a viable product platform. I’d love to be wrong on this though but as someone who’s seen many decades of modular platform development and the tribulations it entails I can’t say that I’m banking money for my first Phoneblok device.