Phonebloks: Cool Idea, Bro.

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.

Phonebloks Design ConceptFor 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.

 

6 Comments

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  1. I think the big thing that you have missed in this piece is that a phone built this way just wouldn’t be very good to use.

    It’d be slow; the limited numbers of pins connecting the processor and peripherals would necessitate a shared serial data bus and pushing even a modest amount of pixels over such a bus could end up being a performance killer in its own right let alone voice and camera functionality. It’d be big and heavy; all that case between peripherals would add up. It’d have terrible battery life; given that each component would need to have its micro processor and supporting components to interface to the CPU.

    Even if a group of people decided to give building this a shot, I don’t think anyone would actually want to buy one.

  2. I left out the technical aspect of it since they haven’t really said how they’re going to achieve it but I do agree with the points you raised. The current design, with its heinously limited number of interconnects, would be severely limiting especially when many devices rely on at least dozens for rudimentary functionality. It’s still conceptual however so they might change the final design could attempt to address some of these concerns but like you I’m skeptical.

    There’s no question that it would have to be bigger and heavier than a traditional handset which does limit its appeal. The concept makes it look comparable to current handsets but whether that translates into the real world remains to be seen.

    It’s been shown that there’s a large difference in the response to “Would you buy this product?” vs “I actually have this product available right now for $X, now will you buy?” and I hazard a guess that the conversion rate on those 650,000+ people on thunderclap isn’t going to hit double digits. That’d still be impressive for a first time handset manufacturer but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to almost any other handset out there.

  3. I really liked the idea when I first heard of it, especially since I’m pretty sure I’ve imagined something similar myself, sometime in the distant past. At face value, the design he presents, though, is pretty bland looking – and I’d wager that’s completely intentional on his part.

    To my eyes, it looks like a very slick wireframe: something to quickly convey the core idea to a large amount of people, just complicated enough to make the idea believably executable, so that people will join in the thunderclap (quite clearly not going for kickstarter or anything remotely financial). As such, I think he’s been pretty successful, getting a lot people to discuss the pros and (it seem like, mostly) cons of the idea, getting his name attached to the concept thus increasing his chances of being involved in similar work down the track, and hopefully influencing that majors into experimenting with the idea in their labs. Maybe something will even trickle down to the consumer market.

    What occurred to me while reading your article and Adam’s comments, is that you guys both work with 3D printers a bit, and that some years down the track when that tech gets broader penetration and a fair bit more finesse, at the very least the case problems Adam mentions could disappear… with consumers purchasing a sort of kit of parts, and baking their own phone in their 3D “printer”…

    I guess what I’m saying is, I think the idea *as idea* has a fair bit of merit to it, and people seem to be overlooking that a bit as they gnaw at the technical impossibilities of it.

  4. In terms of social reach he’s done well, there’s no denying that, and I’d agree there’s a lot of benefit of getting that kind of exposure. The idea has certainly resonated with a lot of people, although I’d hazard a guess that’s due to it tapping into the environmentally conscious bent our generation has, but I’d be very surprised to see this kind of device in the market. There’s a lot of reasons the tech we have is built the way it is and the Phonebloks idea doesn’t really change that.

    Whilst the maker community has produced some pretty amazing things the stuff of high tech isn’t usually among them. The RasPis and Arduinos are pretty impressive little beasts but they still pale in comparison to what large handset manufacturers are capable of. I’m not saying it will never happen but for every step the maker community makes the large manufacturers make a dozen.

    I like the idea but I’m under no illusions that it can become a physical reality.

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