Phonebloks wants to be the first truly upgradeable smartphone, but questions linger

Daniel Bean
Assistant Editor
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An eco-conscious student has unveiled his own rival to the mighty iPhone. Fed up with the modern throwaway culture in which electronic devices are ditched at the first sign of a problem, Dave Hakkens set about designing a solution. He has made a customisable smartphone which need never be thrown away and promises to give control of the phone's features back to the user. (Dave Hakkens/BNPS)

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It seems that smartphone manufacturers are now releasing “the new best phone” so often that even mobile service providers are arguing with each other over who has the best early upgrade plan. Well, one new startup is attempting to throw all this out the window with a device that’s meant to be, itself, easily upgradeable -- no early termination fee required.

Phonebloks is the name of the project and the idea is similar to the way some PC users build and maintain their own computer towers. Components of the Phonebloks smartphone, like CPU, RAM, graphics chip and even camera, will all be replaceable by way of plug and play.

The design idea presented on the project website shows off an almost Lego-like method of installation, with the ability to swap in a new storage block, for instance, by simply plugging it into the phone’s pegged board. There would also be choice in display types, or the option to install a physical keyboard or a few function buttons under a smaller screen. Customization and upgradeability, in general, are the ideas here.

But Phonebloks is also still just that - an idea.

Phonebloks would rely heavily on brands like Nikon, Sharp and Intel to develop camera, screen and CPU blocks for its phone project to be a success, and the smartest (and possibly only) way to get the attention of these companies is through consumer interest. The project's founders have launched a campaign through Thunderclap, a crowd-speaking service that gathers voices rather than money.

According to the Phonebloks project site, “Raising money [with a crowdfunding site] wouldn't bring it further, setting up this platform is too big for one company. We need to gather partners to work together with us.”

As of now, Phonebloks sits at 103% satisfaction (over 677,000 supporters) of its Thunderclap goal, still 40 days away from the end of its campaign. Some, however, doubt that this pledged support will translate into an actual product.

George Hahn, tech analyst and blogger at Generic Maker, recently wrote that the Phonebloks idea, beyond its need for third-party manufacturer support, is actually suffering from “a physics issue."

“Signals in modern devices," Hahn explained, "are extremely high speed; the easiest and cheapest way to combat this is to bring components closer together."

This need, alone, would make it tough to have a device that is truly flexible when installing components on a grid. Additionally, the trials required to figure the functional arrangements of certain block components “would be absolutely enormous,” according to Hahn.

Hahn’s piece also points out that the advancements in mobile processing power have seemed to slow, rendering a phone that it capable of being upgraded every several months a bit of a waste.

“...Few people notice the difference between a 1GHz and 1.2GHz processor or 1GB and 2GB of RAM,” he wrote. “Now, the main thing that separates generations of phones are millimeters of extra display space, grams of saved space, and milliamphours of extra battery life.”

So, will Phonebloks eventually be blocked by technical issues and expensive complications? Though the idea may seem like a novel solution for consumers that need to have the newest hardware and features on their phones, and though there is a hypothetical massive demand for a modular cell phone, these  questions of practicality and even feasibility still remain to be answered.