Currently, the smartphone devices we buy are manufactured by one company and the parts that go into the device are up to them. The consumer has no say over what parts go into the device, even if it would increase desirability or performance. The devices we buy all have an expiration date because there is no way to upgrade parts and they are at the mercy of the latest technology. The concept Phonebloks and the Google Project Ara are expected to change all of that.
Phonebloks all started as an idea in the early months of 2013 from a Dutch designer named Dave Hakkens. When he broke his camera, he had no way of repairing it, rendering it useless. Devices today are either much too complicated to fix because of their design, or the parts that are needed cannot be purchased. Much like other electronics, when one part goes bad inside of a device, there is no repairing it, we just throw it away and upgrade. According to SC Johnson, approximately 140 million cellphones in America ended up in the land fill every year. That isn’t even counting the entire world or other electronics such as computers, cameras, televisions, etc.
The graph below is courtesy of the Electronics Take Back Coalition. In 2012, there was over 3.4 million tons of electronic waste, 2.4 million tons or 70% of the waste ended up in a landfill. To give a perspective to how much weight that actually is, the Empire State Building weighs around 350,000 tons. That equates to throwing away almost seven Empire State Buildings every year.
With Phonbloks, it introduced the world to phone modularity. Modularity is the concept of making a device have easily interchangeable parts. The best example of something that is modular is computers. If a part on a computer, such as a stick of RAM, video card, sound card, CPU, etc., goes bad, we can easily replace it without throwing away the entire computer. If a phone came with the ability to have parts easily swapped and or replaced, it would drastically cut down on e-waste.
Cutting down on e-waste isn’t the only positive that comes from Phonbloks, it is the ability to have complete control of your device. When you buy a smartphone in today’s market, you are at the mercy of the phone manufacturer. The device you buy, is just that, and isn’t anything more. There is no upgrading it or customizing to how you wish. For example, if you like Samsung displays, but prefer a Sony camera, you can easily combine those two on your own device with ease.
It would also give you the opportunity to have different profiles. Phonebloks is expected to have multiple sized frames to fit a certain need at a certain time. If you were going on a trip and wanted to pack light, you could user a smaller framed phone. Instead of having multiple devices, you can easily store extra frames and bloks and use them when you want. If you are going on a flight, you have the ability to take your larger frame to have a bigger display and bigger battery so you can watch movies. If you are going on a hike, but your 8 megapixel camera isn’t good enough to get the pictures you want, you can easily swap out the lens and put on a bigger 16 megapixel camera.
Not only would this be a great convenience, but Phonbloks would render devices future proof. New technology comes out everyday, making current processors, RAM, and even cameras obsolete. Currently, we just get rid of our old device and upgrade. With Phonebloks that all changes. If Qualcomm were to release their newest Snapdragon processor a few months after you picked up your new phone, you can easily just buy the new CPU blok. You could either hold on to the old CPU just in case, or sell it on the internet to another user who doesn’t mind older technology. If you were to drop your phone and shatter your display, a new one can be obtained and clicked on in a few minutes.
Phonebloks is a vision, an idea, and movement. Its end goal is to help the existing industry change forms of development and production that produce less waste. Phonebloks isn’t going to manufacture the device, but they are leading the charge as far as pushing other companies towards production. In late October, Phonebloks announced their partnership which is targeted at making the first modular smartphone. This is when Project Ara is initially released.
Project Ara’s initial exploration started in 2012, and work on the project started in April of 2012. After the announcement of the official collaboration of the two entities, Motorola went on a five-month road trip throughout the U.S. to gauge customer interest in customizable phones.
While this idea started as a vision and concept, Project Ara is bringing it to life. It is not the complete magnitude of the original Phonebloks concept, but it a great start. The entire back is not removable, instead it comes with pre-determined slot sizes. They will come in 1×1, 2×1, and 2×2 slots. Common modules that can be currently expected to be able to swap includes cameras, speakers, projectors, sensors, etc. This ability to swap modules can be done without turning the phone off due to a small back-up battery that will be on board.
The first version of the first modular phone was debuted at Google’s developer conference April 15 and 16. Although they had a prototype, the device froze on its boot-up and was incapable of progressing further in the start-up.
This has led to some concerns arising from Project Ara and Phonebloks. The thought is that there will be so many options for modules, as far as brands, that some might be incompatible with the device or other modules. Companies would have to follow a strict guideline as to what their components would be compatible with. It was also criticized for its 25% up in size and weight. The current Project Ara is 9.7 mm thick whereas the iPhone 5s is 7.6 mm thick.
While the modular smartphone is still a concept and not yet released, Phonebloks is already a success. It has gained our awareness of how much e-waste the world currently creates. This has been the number one goal of Dave Hakkens and Phonebloks from the beginning. Hopefully the Phonebloks vision leads to others recycling their devices over throwing them in the garbage, regardless of what kind of electronic it is or the availability of a modular phone.
While some think that a modular phone won’t catch on, that has been said for multiple innovations that the world has seen. Google has been a number one contributor to changing how we do things, whether it is Google Maps, Gmail, or the Android operating systems (sid 32). Google will continue to innovate, regardless of the success or failure of Project Ara. The first release of the device is expected to be released in Q1 of 2015, which is only four months away. It is expected to launch as a starter kit, with basic hardware for around $50. Additionally frames will be $15, whereas additional hardware prices have yet to be announced. The device is made, its up to the consumers to decide on its success.
Regardless of its success, its good to see innovation in the smartphone market. If an entire modular phone doesn’t catch, hopefully aspects of it will, such as making certain parts on a device modular like the display or camera. Things don’t change if we sit idle; so the fact that Phonebloks and Project Ara are taking the initiative and pushing the limits of smartphones is a welcomed sign. People may criticize the idea and how it’s illogical or won’t work, but what is the worst thing that could happen; the finished product never materializes? What’s the best thing that could happen? We could have completely modular smartphones that are tailored to us. If it doesn’t happen in Q1 of 2015, it is definitely on the horizon.
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Below we have added comments from Reddit users on their thoughts of Project Ara.