In the fall of 2013, a very large movement came into the media’s awareness. The movement, called Phonebloks, was an attempt to revolutionize the concept of the cellular phone by redesigning it so that the phones function for longer, and are more customizable. Its principal goals, to make a more consumer-friendly phone and to reduce the volume of electronic waste, are ambitious, and could indeed be revolutionary.
If the goals were feasible, that is.
The genesis of Phonebloks came when its eventual founder, Dave Hakkens, decided to try to do something about the fact that cellular phones are often replaced because of the failure of only a single, small part, such as a damaged processor or a faulty graphics chip. The old phones are almost always disposed of as waste, which contributes a very large volume to landfills. In addition to being detrimental to the environment, the frequent replacement tends to be costly for consumers.
Hakkens’ idea was that a cell phone be composed of three essential components: a display screen, a base, and a number of blocks of varying sizes that connect to the base. Each block contains one piece of the phone’s hardware, from the graphics engine to the battery to the circuitry that allows a user to access their carrier’s wifi. If cell phones were designed this way, Hakkens claims, whenever one portion of a phone breaks it can be easily replaced with relatively little cost and without the need to dispose of the entire phone.
The idea is very powerful in theory, but there are a few core problems with it.
A phone’s components have to communicate with each other for the phone to be able to function. Currently, cell phones are integrated, which means most of their components occupy a single chip. This allows the pieces to transmit data back and forth at relatively high speed. In a phone designed with Phonebloks, each block is separate, so it is forced to rely on the motherboard to connect them. The transition from micrometers in a standard phone to millimeters in a Phonebloks phone is very significant for electronic signals, and would slow phones down significantly.
Because people need the ability to manually manipulate the blocks, as well as because the components must be inherently larger given that they are segregated, the phone’s size will inevitably grow. That isn’t all bad, seeing as the screen will be larger, but it could make it difficult for many consumers to comfortably fit the phone in their pocket.
With the decrease in speed and increase in size, the phone would consume much more battery power to perform similar functions to a current standard cell phone because it needs to transmit a signal for a larger distance. This increases its energy footprint significantly as well as raising electricity costs for consumers, and there is even a question as to it holding its charge for more than a couple of hours at a time.
Overall, Phonebloks is an impressive idea, but barring multiple major technological breakthroughs that’s all it will be for the foreseeable future.