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.
It's similar to this phone idea. Of course a modular phone can be built, but the trade offs involved make it impracticle.
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.
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.
For less than the price of the modular version, you can get a non-modular one with all the 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.
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.
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).
If you manage to pitch this to the hardware manufacturers, that's your entry point to build consensus.
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.
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.
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".
And leaking all of your secret data in the process.
Look, the point isn't the specific protocol, the point is that it's possible.
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)
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.
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 !!
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.
Which comes back to the incremental value of features thing.
what? how does apple have a monopoly?
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.
Are you going for satire?
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).
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.
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.
> (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.
You'd think that pedestrian everyday uses like beer cans would use many many orders of magnitude more aluminum...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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
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.
So fine that we ended up stuck with 1366x768 for the last decade.
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.
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 with most consumer products, especially electronic devices, there's quite a lot Planned Obsolescence in mobile phones.
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.
This article does a fantastic job of explaining whats up: http://sealedabstract.com/rants/why-mobile-web-apps-are-slow...
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...
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
I love this idea, and hope that they get enough interest to make a splash.
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.