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Why Phonebloks Will Never Happen (genericmaker.com)
147 points by lewisflude on Sept 14, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments



So far I've not heard "this can't be done." All I've heard is "I don't know how this might be done." Huge difference there. I also hear a fair bit of "this shouldn't be done", which I find incredibly disappointing.

Here's a hypothetical: we already know how to do noisy, shared-media device interconnects. It's called 802.11. Look at the size of wifi adapters: you can get a usable signal that works over meters from something the size of a USB plug. Now, imagine that doesn't have to include an aerial, or much of an amplifier, because even if you get a dodgy connection you're transmitting fractions of a millimetre into a chunk of metal, and you're looking at something that can be shrunk down to well within the scale Phonebloks needs, for pennies a block.

With something analogous to a router running a zeroconf system on the baseboard, it's not even particularly difficult to see how you might handle service discovery from the blocks you plug in.

Again, this is just a hypothetical, but it's just one way Phonebloks could technically be coerced into existence. I don't claim to know about any economic reasons, but there's a saying: those saying something can't be done should stay out of the way of those doing it.

So, less knee-jerk negativity please, it's far more entertaining to try to figure out how this could be done than to wallow in a brief moment of superiority by writing it off.


An engineer will rarely tell you that something is impossible. Ask an engineer to build a bridge across the pacific ocean. The response you get will not be "this can't be done", but "the costs involved make it impractical".

It's similar to this phone idea. Of course a modular phone can be built, but the trade offs involved make it impracticle.


Agreed here. Making a shared protocol for the cpu, RAM, and disk? Heck, how fast is this phone expected to run exactly.


The point of the article isn't really "this can't be done"; but "if this is done, it's inferior to a non-modular phone".

Even perfectly functioning modular plugins take up extra space - a "classic" phone can instead either be smaller/thinner, or put in a bit extra battery in those cubicmillimetres; which both make the "same" phone better.

Modularity imposes a cost, it's a tradeoff - and even for laptops we're seeing that people tend to prefer a bit of size/weight/battery life rather than modularity.


>The point of the article isn't really "this can't be done"; but "if this is done, it's inferior to a non-modular phone".

And it's only inferior if you choose to look at it through that lens. As far as I can see, the idea is that modularity brings its own benefits, which, for some people, might outweigh the perceived disadvantages. If someone's already decided they'd never be in the market for a modular phone because they don't want that inherent tradeoff, what point is there in being negative about how that modularity is achieved?

> even for laptops we're seeing that people tend to prefer a bit of size/weight/battery life rather than modularity.

Applied to phones, size? Maybe. There's a place in the world for a Samsung Note, so I wouldn't write it off on those grounds. Weight? Arguably. Battery life? Beyond a threshold of about 18 hours, a vast number of people demonstrably don't care.

If I were to pick an obvious problem point, it's simply that the hardware is bound to be more expensive for a given set of functionality.

> Modularity imposes a cost, it's a tradeoff

Yes. That's exactly it. It's a tradeoff which some people may find it worth making.


It's gonna be more expensive, bigger, slower, and have a smaller battery life. What's in it to like?

For less than the price of the modular version, you can get a non-modular one with all the functionality included.


> ..with all functionality included

Well, except for the modularity. And 'more expensive' is debatable over time, since the user should get away with replacing only parts for a while and competition, standardization and partial reuse of components could result in lower prices over time.

Functionality is also debatable, over time. Since bloks users can (ideally) replace a small part to upgrade to NFC, while regular phone users need a complete new phone.


That is a great example of why this idea is completely infeasible. You can't replace a small component to get NFC. NFC requires a large antenna (think roughly the size of a credit card). That has RF implications with other emitters ont he device (BT, Wifi, LTE). Also, all the RF modules in a PhoneBloks phone would require individual shielding to pass regulatory compliance (since the phone will never be tested as a whole the individual parts have to be certified), which will significantly increase their size and cost.


Good point. A modern phone (or any complex device) is more than a collection of swappable components - it is an integrated system.


The core problem is basic math: X+Y > X. (For positive values, of course.)

Modern phones are marvels of stripping away everything not completely necessary, with the result that they're the size they are. Adding modularity means adding enclosures around the modules, which adds size and weight - and for something as small as a phone, practical physical limits of enclosures add up to a non-trivial increase in size. Separability between two components means adding shielding, casing, air gaps, etc for each module, to just (say) have a removable battery means at least 2mm greater size - not trivial when the whole device is less than 10mm thick.

Should you accept that additional volume & mass (and cost) required to implement any degree of modularity, you're faced with the tradeoff: would you rather have significantly greater performance instead? You could apply that aforementioned 2mm to 50% more battery, or quadrupling storage, or etc.; which is more desirable, a replaceable battery or a longer lasting one? Most customers would prefer more performance.

To your thoughtful point of solving the problem instead of complaining at it, consider that the phones are reaching the limits of physical and computational need/usability: with continued miniaturization of all components, we can free up enough space within the device to apply it to lower-priority use such as modularity and optical interconnections.


I totally take your point about the tradeoff, but that's the point, isn't it? For the people who don't fit into the "customers who prefer more performance" bucket (for instance), or any of the other buckets that can be served by a modular approach, where do they turn? How do we get there from here? It's at least worth looking at the map.


Are there enough of them to make such a product viable? Remember, you're up against products produced in such volume they become their own commodities. iPhones may cost some $650 full price, but is there seriously any way a modular phone could really compete without deep optimization to such a massive supply chain? anyone willing to pay $1500+ for an underpowered phone just because it's modular? These are not rhetorical questions.

All that said, methinks here IS a market for a very well made dumb phone. Anyone carrying an iPad everywhere doesn't need an equal but smaller iPhone, just something like an iPhone nano (makes calls, great ecosystem integration, refined UI, and nothing else).


They buy a different phone. There is more than one to choose from.


Maybe there will be too much data-protocol and energy overhead if communications goes through this. Smartphones could be very modular if they weren't so thin, even a USB2 pseudo backplane for everything but the screen and cpu would be enough. Maybe in a few year optic based chip interconnects (ala thunderbolt) will be cheap enough to have pluggable very high bandwidth components in a handheld device.


I think the idea is really nice. Calls for some sort of standard for the manufacturers, that they converge on the Standard Shipping Container spec for mobile tech. This sort of happened with computer parts. Even Apple computers have interchangeable parts with their PC brethren, even the CPU in some cases. What you would need to do is motivate the hardware manufacturers to settle on the Container spec and the basic board and components can be built from off the shelf parts (like PC computers today).

If you manage to pitch this to the hardware manufacturers, that's your entry point to build consensus.


Have you seen a modern Apple like the Air and Macbook Pro Retina? The battery is a formless bag glued into the case wherever there is room. The "hard" drive is an SSD chip soldered to the board. The memory is not even replaceable any more.


In terms of performance, while it CAN be done, it would be several orders of magnitude slower than even the slowest phones on the market today.

I'll just take the processor module as an example: in a modern consumer processor, bidirectional bus speed to the CPU can be upwards of 25.6 GB/s (gigaBYTES) - compare that to the 50 MB/s typical speeds of your average 802.11 network. It wouldn't even make sense for the phone to have RAM when using such a slow interlink as it would be no faster than flash memory.

Yes, it CAN be done, but it would be so slow as to be unusable for most purposes.


If you were going to do something like this, it makes more sense to think in terms of a network, rather than a bus. What you'd be transmitting wouldn't be the memory contents, it would be the (much smaller) computation results. That does have implications for where you cut the modules up (you'd want your GPU to be sat right next to the screen, for instance), but doesn't fundamentally damage the core idea.


> What you'd be transmitting wouldn't be the memory contents, it would be the (much smaller) computation results.

The only way I can make that sentence sensible is to assume that you're putting the CPU and memory on the same module. Given that there are basically 4 pieces that make sense to swap (screen, CPU, RAM, battery), you're already pretty far down the path of engineering this into what we already have.


What I find most infuriating is this attitude that, hey, this idea of mine is maybe theoretically possible, so let's make a shiny, over-stylized concept video to promote it as though it's practically been built already. Because I've done the hard part and come up with an idea. And now all we need to do is get the right companies and the right people together, and this whole thing will magically fall into place.

The negative reaction that this video has engendered from myself and others is due mostly to the fact that its creator appears completely oblivious to the challenges inherent in what they want to make, including all the reasons that – at least on the face of it – this idea is a complete non-starter; and yet they dress this up and present it to the world with complete confidence, as a sure thing on the cusp of taking shape. This drastically over-values a design concept and brushes actual engineering effort under the rug as a simple matter of getting people and money into the same room. And it misses the forest (reducing waste and cost of ownership, increasing device durability and longevity) for the trees (an overly-complex modular design which would actually be detrimental to all of the above).

Incidentally, I take your comment about using 802.11 as a system bus (!) in a similar vein. You make an enormous leap from observing that something might be made to work in theory, given sufficiently fuzzy constraints, to making concrete assertions like "you're looking at something that can be shrunk down to well within the scale Phonebloks needs, for pennies a block" (well no, not if those blocks need OFDM modulators and network stacks and zeroconf implementations). Nevermind all the more fundamental reasons that Wi-Fi is not a sane choice for a system bus (latency, EMI, power consumption, complexity of numerous unnecessary abstraction layers to name a few). Something which is possible in theory can also be a horrible idea in practice, and it's disappointing how many people have trouble with that distinction.

[By analogy, one of the challenges we'll face in sending humans to Mars is the 26-month periodic launch window created by the planetary orbits, which imposes extra constraints on any mission plan. But wait, in theory we could build a rocket big enough to take us back home even outside one of these launch windows, right? I certainly don't know enough about astronomy or rocket science to say otherwise. But I'm also aware enough of my own ignorance in those fields to skip calling up NASA and insisting that they get us to Mars sooner by building bigger rockets.]

The point is that if you're going to make a promotional video apparently designed to attract investment in your idea, the burden of proof is on you to show that your idea is reasonable. And if people with actual domain knowledge then come along and point out numerous basic problems with your strongly-asserted idea, it isn't "knee-jerk negativity" but a much-needed dose of reality.

> there's a saying: those saying something can't be done should stay out of the way of those doing it.

The Phonebloks designer(s) aren't doing it. Someone made a promotional video. Huge difference. And the people who actually would have the expertise to do it are saying, not quite "this shouldn't be done" as you lament, but something more like "the inherent tradeoffs that the designer has ignored make this not a good avenue to pursue given the design goals and engineering realities, and the designer is clearly way out of their depth for neither recognizing this themselves nor consulting anyone who could".


>Here's a hypothetical: we already know how to do noisy, shared-media device interconnects. It's called 802.11.

And leaking all of your secret data in the process.


Nope. Not more than they do now.

Look, the point isn't the specific protocol, the point is that it's possible.


Not with that method. Compare bus speeds of 802.11 and wireline.


> the stated motivation for this design is to reduce electrical waste. The best way to do that in the short term is to ensure devices are more repairable

Right, a replaceable screen and battery and an SD card slot would get you 99% of the features you'd actually want from phonebloks, and it's actually something that would be achievable (if there were demand, which I think is the biggest problem here: there's just no demand for this from the majority of consumers)


A replaceable battery, SD card and easily replaceable screens were all features of phones available more than 5 years ago, yet these features disappeared because the iPhone showed that most consumers don't value those features over a sleek integrated lifestyle product.

Besides all points mentioned already, I just can't think of a way to protect the pin-connection from wear in daily use without adding an additional shell or individual screws, which would make it even more bulky. Simply haven't seen a single miniature socket yet that works well under constant external stress.

Regarding the proposed design, with all it's sharp edges and deep ridges I'm already looking forward to weekly lint removal sessions.

In terms of total energy waste it might be worth considering that there's not only one logistic process anymore but a mere 5 to 10(?) with each has it's own packaging, transportation and handling footprint. So it's debatable that the total environmental impact might be actually worse than that of a 2 year life cycle smartphone.


iPhone showed that most consumers don't value those features over a sleek integrated lifestyle product.

Consumers have no acess to bid on the incremental value of features. There is no supply side market for these. There is no market because apple is playing monopolist (legal). Lets not use sloppy language !!


> Consumers have no acess to bid on the incremental value of features.

They could have kept buying Nokia 3310s instead of iPhones if they thought that a replaceable battery was more important than everything else they got with the Apple product. People made the same argument about physical keyboards, and look at what happened to RIM.


The fact that the Droid line sells despite it being basically a keyboard bolted onto a 2-3 year old phone shows that there is a market there. RIMs problem was one of software - only Android and iOS smartphones are really doing well these days, since nothing else has the app ecosystem.

Which comes back to the incremental value of features thing.


> apple is playing monopolist

what? how does apple have a monopoly?


You're going down the road into a philosophical argument. Defining a monopoly requires you to define a market, which is a huge can of worms. If you make the market "computing devices" then nobody has a monopoly. If you make the market "Win32 API PCs" then Microsoft has a monopoly. If you make the market "devices that run iOS apps" then Apple has a monopoly. And so on.

The larger point is that consumer choice isn't there. You can't get an iOS device with a removable battery. That doesn't prove that current Apple customers don't want a removable battery, it just proves they value some other characteristics more, and the market may not be offering any single product that satisfies their optimal set of preferences.

When that happens it means there is room for a newcomer to disrupt the market. If someone started selling iPhones (or something sufficiently equivalent) with removable batteries, some people would buy them -- if only because it would double the resale value since the phone wouldn't become landfill after the non-replaceable battery goes flat.


>There is no market because apple is playing monopolist (legal). Lets not use sloppy language !!

Are you going for satire?


Patents and trademarks are legal monopolies. Because of these protections, there are no non-apple "iphones". As a result, there are no ipohones with features not offered by apple. There are no a-la-carte prices for the features discussed. plain and simple. nothing nefarious, its their right by law. that being said, you cant infer/measure market values in non-existent markets. that's what the previous poster was trying to do.


Small, affordable, easy to repair. Pick two.

If you disagree about the "affordable" part, I invite you to estimate the cost of an iPhone that had replaceable parts, while maintaining the performance, battery life and size of the current, integrated one (if such a device is even technically doable).


Lumia 820 anyone? Selling close to just 200 EUR, replaceable battery, SD-card slot and a replaceable cover with optional wireless charging as a bonus. It's still a WP but it's doable.


> yet these features disappeared because the iPhone showed that most consumers don't value those features over a sleek integrated lifestyle product.

Actually, at the time when the shift to non-replaceable battery happened the alternatives had significantly worse software, which easily overtook any benefit from a replaceable battery, but also means that it means little in terms of estimated consumer expectations for a single hardware feature.

To get actual information we would need Apple to produce a device that's pretty much identical to the iPhone with the only differences being whatever's necessary to achieve battery replaceability.


Except manufacturing and cost considerations go exactly the other way. An iPhone 5S entire electronics that make it go is slightly smaller an an average stick of gum.... That's all the "modules" except screen and battery. It's made in one shot my high-speed machines that took about 30 seconds from bare board to operating phone parts.. Parts are so small you'd need a magnifying glass to handle them by hand.

The current situatuion is about as good as it gets. There are enough iPhones sold third parties can copy parts or simply canibalize broken ones for repairs. Apple only updates models once a year, so that means there is lots of effort by third parties because their efforts pay off a whole 3 years of repairs. Fixing individual boards takes $1000+ of lab equipment and 2x what the part is worth for labor.

Even Apple's MacBooks only have one main board that's small as possible. That's why Apple started using REAL glass screens, and metal bodies that can be pealed down for their bare scrap costs. To get the ELECTRONICS metals back is going to require some kind of furnace that can contain toxic fumes and perform exotic metals separation. Even then 3/4 of electronic waste is pastic and F4 circuit board material which is utterly useless except to burn off. That leaves 2/3 of at waste as dirt cheap tin-lead solder and a small bit of super fancy alloys.


Plus encasing every component in its own plastic capsule with high quality metal interconnects won't exactly save materials.


> > the stated motivation for this design is to reduce electrical waste. The best way to do that in the short term is to ensure devices are more repairable

> (if there were demand, which I think is the biggest problem here: there's just no demand for this from the majority of consumers)

I'm old enough to remember people treating their phone less carefully towards the end of the contract, so that they "had the excuse" to upgrade to a better phone when they got a ew contract, and not just keep the same phone on a cheaper contract.

So, repairability is good, but WEEE is also important. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_Electrical_and_Electroni...)

Luckily phones contain comparatively large amounts of gold so they're desirable for recyclers. It'd be great if all the other rare earth minerals etc could be recycled too.

It's great that there's a lot of aluminium cases being used, if that's creating a market for recycled aluminum. Not so great if new ore is being mined for it.


Do iPhones represent a significant use of aluminum?

You'd think that pedestrian everyday uses like beer cans would use many many orders of magnitude more aluminum...


It's difficult to express demand for something that doesn't exist.


Another option is to ensure that most of your phone can be recycled: http://www.apple.com/recycling/


Could you standardize how screens are connected?


The actual communications protocol is already standardized, so it's more a matter of connectors and form factor.


This is one of those ideas that look good on paper (or youtube) but just isn't practical. There's absolutely no spare space in a modern phone. If you make it modular, each 'module' has to have enough space for its component, PLUS space to bring it up to the next module size. This will make the phone HUGE.

The concept of an upgradable device is, however, great. Just not in the manufacturer's interest. Apple lose out if they offer a storage upgrade. Motorola don't sell another phone if they make the screen swappable to the next technology.


You can clearly see the cost of modularity if you compare my current laptop to my previous one.

My current laptop is a 15" retina MacBook Pro. It isn't upgradable in any real sense of the word.

My previous laptop was a 15" MacBook Pro. I could upgrade the RAM and HDD, and with little difficulty replace the battery.

The upgradable one is 5mm-ish thicker and about 400 grams heavier.

Not a true apples-to-apples comparison, but it does show the bulk added by having end user interchangeable connections on the hardware.


If I recall correctly the standard MacBook Pro also sports a DVD-slot drive, which may attribute to quite a bit of the added weight and size. However I do agree, that modularity will come at the prize of less miniaturization. And with mobile phones this is even more of an issue.


> Not a true apples-to-apples comparison

HA


Definitely agree with you on the space/volume issue, but I don't think most of that weight gain comes from modularity. Because 400 grams is a lot of weight. I think it's probably mostly the hard drive weight.


Hsrd drives do not weight as much, unless you are talking about 3.5" drives, not laptop drives.


> There's absolutely no spare space in a modern phone.

My Treo 700p was >3x the thickness of an iPhone 5S, roughly the same width, 7mm taller (not counting the antenna, which was, by far, the most annoying physical part of the phone), and weighed an extra 68 grams. My manager around the same time used an HTC Windows Phone of not-dissimilar size and weight.

Phones are smaller because they can be, not because they have to be.


What if Motorola so that next storage upgrade or screen? And modern desktops are built to be modular from the start. Why not have a motherboard in form factor of a smart phone device.


Desktops are modular because the high price components used to have. Look at manufacturers now and you'll see a trend towards non-modular designs (iMac, Vaios,…)

This is not a scheme to take your money, BTW. Most of the consumers wont upgrade any part of the PC during their lifetime, so you are being held back in design and build quality by a feature only a fraction os the population demands. By held back I don't just mean design wise, although is one of the main advantages. You have to support legacy ports, slower buses, etc...

By going to non-modular designs, you can make better use of the space. The tradeoffs are big, especially on laptops (increased battery life), and more so in mobile.


While upgradeable is one aspect - another big aspect of the problem is it being fixeable. Due to a variety of reasons, it's not affordable to fix your old phone, you might as well buy a new one. FairPhone is another phone project, which aims to actually make your phone repairable too. I think it'll make a bigger dent in the short to medium term.


This is so typically "I have this greatest world-changing idea ever, all I need is a programmer to implement it..."


I don't buy the speed argument. In a modern PC, many things are pluggable. PCI express can transmit up to 30 GB/s, IIRC. Even CPUs and RAM are modular. If there was such a benefit from soldering them together, I'm sure we would be seeing more integrated systems.

Furthermore, the modem part of many smartphones is already a black box that is heavily isolated from every other component. It's basically just hooked into a bus, and connected to microphone, speakers, and antennas, and doesn't necessarily interface that much with the CPU.

I'm not sure the PhoneBloks concept would work. (Crazy ideas follow.) But what I can definitely see working is separating the computer from the shell (case, screen, speakers, camera, ...). We are reaching a point where the speed difference between smartphone generations becomes meaningless. In the future, you might be able to buy standardized "computing bricks". For one phone, you might need a 2017 model A brick, for a tablet at least a model C, and if you want to build a server, you just pick up a few (kilos of?) CPU bricks. These bricks would be so cheap and featureless, that they would allow really ubiquitous computing. Building a house? Build in a few, like power sockets. You'll get the equivalent of today's top PCs thrown after you as advertizement gifts.

This is not necessarily what must happen, but the reason I think it could happen is the following: Once the raw computing sector stops growing, and there is no longer much profit to make, the industry will want to move on. As we are already seeing today, specs will not be the main selling point. Instead, people will pay for features (a great camera, physical buttons :-), wireless charging, ...), a better integrated experience, a certain design, or a brand name (e.g. all Apple). Development will focus even more on that, and there will be a drive to reduce the cost of raw computing to it's minimum.


> I don't buy the speed argument. In a modern PC, many things are pluggable. PCI express can transmit up to 30 GB/s, IIRC. Even CPUs and RAM are modular. If there was such a benefit from soldering them together, I'm sure we would be seeing more integrated systems.

The issue between the CPU and memory isn't throughput (the vast majority of operations are <=64 bits at a time), it's latency. Latency is directly affected by the amount of wire between the two things. In a desktop, you can offset the latency to a large, replaceable memory module by adding smaller amounts of more expensive memory (cache) directly in the CPU chip.

> Furthermore, the modem part of many smartphones is already a black box that is heavily isolated from every other component. It's basically just hooked into a bus, and connected to microphone, speakers, and antennas, and doesn't necessarily interface that much with the CPU.

This is partially true. The CPU still needs to control the radio, and they're constantly feeding each other data. You might want to send the audio data through a DSP for audio processing. The microphones/speakers will be shared between the two, and probably go through a codec. Also, Qualcomm radios and CPUs are pretty tightly coupled. If you want to do CDMA for the US (they seem to have patents on all of the CDMA tech) then you need to use a QC radio, which means that you need to use a QC processor, a QC codec, ... (Source: I used to work on audio firmware at RIM.)


Desktop PCs are huge. Laptops are still large compared to phones, and losing modularity fast as they're getting smaller. Your comparison is apples to oranges.


> PCI express can transmit up to 30 GB/s

Well, yeah. And by only doubling the size of a normal smartphone, you could probably fit 4 connectors and just about nothing else.

Seriously, though, there's a reason that desktops can be modular, and it's because people who buy them don't care how big they are (case in point: most desktops are upwards of 2/3 empty space). That's not the case with phones (or laptops - and look at how modular they are).


The only thing that will make something like this plausible and sought-after is expensive e-waste disposal. We have to charge the actual costs of the waste to the waste producers.

Right now that waste cost is practically invisible to the consumer, much less the manufacturer. If the true waste costs (health impacts, polluted water supplies, diminishing limited resources) were factored into the decision to get a "new" phone, computer, etc. then there'd possibly be some desire for this type of device. But right now, I can't see this happening without that market force.


Honestly, it's probably not that bad. You could cast all the old electronics in solid, impermeable concrete blocks and only pay pennies per phone.


How exactly would you compute it? And, refining phones for their metals content can be profitable.


This idea seems like it would be a much better fit for tablets rather than phones.

You have much more room to play around with on a tablet and perhaps the typical usage patterns of the tablet actually encourages you to swap out your bloks for different purposes.

For example, I could switch to a better but more power consuming Wi-Fi module when I'm at school which usually has crappy coverage but could then swap that out for longer duration battery so that I can watch shows on the train ride back home without compromising on screen brightness or risk the tablet dying before I get home


I would not want a Phoneblok phone. I don't want to think about my phone at all. I want to use it, and put it away when I'm done. That's it. I don't want to deal with CPU blok A has a bug in it, or doesn't quite work with wifi blok B, or app C was written with camera blok D in mind and is a bit wonky with my camera blok E.

It's a major reason I've always preferred the iPhone. It's also why I no longer use Linux, same general annoyances just mostly in software instead of hardware.


People are complaining about fragmentation on Android, heck people are even complaining about it on iPhones. How would you develop a good mobile OS with apps on hardware you can't test against? Even if the hardware problems was solved now, I do not think people would be happy to dev against the "platform".


People did just fine developing applications for PC with the huge variety of possible hardware, and for web where target hardware differs in size and power by multiple orders of magnitude.


> People did just fine developing for PC

So fine that we ended up stuck with 1366x768 for the last decade.


Perhaps the technical challenges for Phonebloks will be too great. However, a modular design is more than achievable if you don't mind reducing the number of blocks.

Imagine you have 4 blocks: screen, battery, file storage, logic. Each of these could easily be connected in a modular way, and in the case of batteries, already are in a good number of phones. Whilst you might lose out on some of the customisation flexibility that the Phonebloks concept showed, you do get a number of decent benefits...

1. Replacing screen if damaged or wish to have an upgrade. 2. Can upgrade storage space without upgrading the whole phone (SD cards are a decent way to augment storage, but the proposed method offers the chance to expand beyond the limits of SD cards). 3. Replacing the logic block only allows you to have an upgraded phone customised quicker than buying a new phone (no need to migrate contacts, settings and media). 4. Battery upgrades should be the norm anyway, it's wasteful to throw away a phone just because the battery no longer holds a decent level of charge, plus it allows for extended battery capacity upgrades.


This reminds me very much of what [Bug Labs] (http://buglabs.net/products/blocks) is doing. Building modular hardware components for rapid prototyping and development. Cool stuff.


That's exactly what I thought of, as well.


Yeah I interned there a couple of years ago. Honestly very surprised they're not more well known in the tech community.


The reasons this will never happen has nothing to do with the technical challenges, but rather the business implications.

What business is going to invest in creating commoditized platform? Certainly not Apple or Samsung, they are busy figuring out new ways to lock consumers into their ecosystem. So it has to be a new entry into the mobile market.

Perhaps a company like IBM has the resources to build the base platform. (This is certainly beyond a kick starter). But, why would an IBM invest in creating a commodity platform? How does an open hardware platform serve their, or any other business', interests? It doesn't, and that's the real reason that we won't see a system like this.


As much as it sounds fun, I very much doubt that industry will adapt it. Look at Android which is open-sourcish, updated frequently and the whole os should be easy to transfer between devices. In reality no one wants to allow people to do that. Older devices are not updated and crappy additional software is installed just for this reason - to make sure people have to buy complete new phone often and to make sure it's the right one. I don't think it's the right approach to shout into the void instead of, let's say, build a startup and go on kickstarter.


Exactly, the industry would quite likely resist building such a device - there are very little incentive to do so - they would rather sell you a brand new model.

As with most consumer products, especially electronic devices, there's quite a lot Planned Obsolescence in mobile phones.


PC's are modular. You can mix and match (at least, until a new motherboard standard); you can replace parts (at least, while they're still made).

One problem with mobile phones is that they haven't been fast enough - by tightly integrating every part, you can maximize efficiency to get the best out of the hardware. Apple does this fantastically, whereas Android is more modular, and so isn't quite as efficient.

But now that the iPhone 5S is 40x-56x faster than the first iPhone, speed doesn't seem to be an issue, in practice or theory. So an even more modular phone is plausible.


I love to see people using the words like " this will never happen" like they could predict the future in any way. So many have been proven wrong over the years, I wont be surprised if this author is proven wrong again. This might not be possible now, with today's technology, just like 10 years ago it wasn't possible to have a computer in your pocket with multiple GHz cores and GB of RAM.


Past progress is not a sure indication of future progress. Phones have made huge leaps in the past decade, but now the leaps they're making are smaller and more incremental. We're hitting a barrier of how much power we can pack into a device that can fit in your pocket.

This article does a fantastic job of explaining whats up: http://sealedabstract.com/rants/why-mobile-web-apps-are-slow...


From what I've learned of hardware engineering (basically by colocation osmosis here at a large Finnish handset maker), it's that the needs of RF performance alone make this thing a near impossibility, at least unless the radio and antenna portions of the phone are considered to be "off limits" for modularizing.

Every piece of hardware added to the phone affects RF performance by virtue of its being made of matter (that isn't RF-transparent) and being in close proximity. If it starts emitting or being affected by electromagnetic waves, well that's a whole new layer of pain to deal with...

Maybe...maybe...if you wanted to consider the radio and antenna fixed, and bring back the old external antenna that would be forever unobstructed by new bloks...


A thought experiment:

What if just the enclosure was replaceable?

For example, if an iPhone 5 user could purchase an iPhone 6 enclosure and transfer his iPhone 5's PCB to the new enclosure (perhaps as easily as moving a SIM card from one phone to another), then as far as the most of the non-technical, status-conscious, exterior design-focused world can tell (this probably excludes you, gentle HN reader), does the user have an iPhone 6?

What if were true that non-technical consumers buy phones in large part because of how they look? After all, the differences in functionality between, e.g., Samsung's and Apple's, phones are relatively minor. Many phones from different manufacturers are more or less the same size.


This would be cool as a desktop. Yeah, desktops are already modular and upgradable. But if had this Lego-like interface, anyone could do it, and it'd be a ton of fun.

Actually, even better would be a whole computer in a single block. You could then buy an identical computer and connect it to the first one, to make a more powerful single computer. It'd add a little bit more of a boost of CPU power, GPU power, RAM, and HDD. You'd never have to upgrade; instead you just keep buying more blocks and attaching it to your old hardware. Of course it'd be less efficient than a non-Lego computer, but it'd be really fun to use.


Like this project http://rhombus-tech.net


Phone like phone we see today uses very highly complicated chips and its connections to each functional modules. Something that can be detachable easily can be really surprising.

Mobile phone SoC chip (Application processor) is heading into very uncertainty area as fabrication process require too small transistors now. Hope that dealing super sensitive chips, can be guided by chip experts.

Putting everything physically close in one chip is also cost and integrity issues. More functions in a smaller area = less die cost. Blok based components would have to consider how to compete cost where $10 everything possible SoC is ready.


I never figured it would be done in the way it's presented. I like it because there's a lot of potential. And if a lot of smart hardware engineers start working on it, we can develop something way cooler. I want to see companies recognize that people like this idea and start moving in that direction. I would love for this to spark pressure that moves us away from monolithic solutions and towards something more modular.


You know... SK Telecom, in South Korea just announced speeds of over 200Mbps for mobile data. I believe that speed tends to increase over time. We will get to a point where smartphones will just become dumb terminals, using resources from a "cloud". We are talking years from now, but that could easily become the next big leap, IMHO.


Latency is going to the hurdle there. You can have the fastest connection in the world but if it takes 400ms to pull up someone's contact info, no one is going to give a fuck.


No, I look at this as I would connect my laptop to a supercomputer via ssh or PuTTY.

I still have a good amount of computing local, but for those heavy jobs, I can send it elsewhere and have it come back to me. Think voice-text transliteration, near immediate video processing, instantaneous (near real-time) voice translation, map stuffs.

And if we use a system that allows shared code to migrate from one machine to the next (think Erlang), then we don't even need that ssh tunnel... The estimated weights on a process would send it appropriately to the right cluster of CPUs.


That is already how voice recognition, translation, etc services work on smartphones today. At least in Google and Windows/Bing systems, that is done in the cloud and sent back to your phone. They have simpler, less powerful versions entirely on the phone that are used as a fallback (one explicitly warned by the vendor to be inferior, mind you) for when the device cannot connect to the big iron in the sky.


PC's were once integrated, too, and then became modular. Smartphones are integrated, but I could see a future where they become modular. It would also follow Clayton Christen's theory of "integration/disintegration" from his Innovator's Solution book.


I'm curious if you could implement a GSM/3G phone using software defined radio, using a device such as BladeRF/USRP.

Amittedly they're not small enough to use as a normal phone though. Maybe you'd be able to scale down that tech though one day?


Yes the idea is good, but can not practical implemented. Category: Fun projects for geeks.


The biggest problem is that all major hardware manufacturers must create common standard and redesign their hardware components. The combined effort would cost billions of dollars and the result will be uncertain. No one would take the risk.


I disagree with the principle that we should make more things to reduce waste. I'd much rather take the 800$ I'm supposed to spend on buying this phone, and give it to someone trying to repurpose old electronics.


The comments here remind me of the classic debate of monolithic kernel vs micro kernels; It ends up with the same result that the ecosystem required for the modular components causes too much operational bloat.


This is a great idea. Own your phone. Right now, the phones we have feel like they are the corporation's phone and not ours.

I love this idea, and hope that they get enough interest to make a splash.


It's also a bin packing problem :)


i'm puzzled at why few people mention the busses needed to communicate between the blocks. sure it looks all nice and stuff. and even if you had a lot of money, what about the transfer speeds needed to communicate between one block and the other?


I do not think that this would ever work. If it does, I'll take three.


Your use of "never" is going to bite you in the ass, brother!


It will never work because there is no apple logo on the phone.


And yet, no Apple logo on what, 75% of smartphones these days?


It's also an appearence issue. Most women I know tend to choose their phone by its looks. Phonebloks would not appeal to most of them ("I see the screws!") and thus it is not a very marketable phone.


Yeah, sure, it's only women who choose a phone on looks.


Heh.

My girlfriend's complaint about her android is that it's all software buttons on the screen. She wants physical buttons ala blackberry (but absolutely NO blackberry!)

And a bigger battery would be helpful.... As would a better antenna! She remembers the old 5W bag phones that could get signal from hell and back.


Never said it's only women. Just that in my experience they're the ones who care and show it most in their purchases. It's of course also myself, although I personally like the design. I hope I didn't confuse anyone.




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