A Modular Cell Phone Begging To Be Built
And now -- almost as if I were exactly tuned into the zeitgeist -- my Facebook feed is full of people sharing the Phonebloks video. On the off chance you’re not one of the seven million people who have watched it in the four days since it’s been published, the idea is simple: Instead of throwing away a perfectly good phone because a single component on it isn’t working (say, the screen or the camera), make a phone that works like Lego. Make it modular, open-platform, and customizable. Make it so if you do everything in the cloud, you can ditch storage in favor of a bigger battery, or if you’re obsessed with photography, you can give that priority.
The comments are entirely predictable. There’s a good handful of the insightful (“Lego phone!”) and gushing (“OMG WANT”) variety. And, of course, the usual naysayers make an appearance. “This will never work,” “I have tons of engineering experience and this will never work,” “I can see into the future and this will never work,” etc.
Regardless of whether the phone could work exactly as conceptualized, phones can certainly become more modular. Batteries and storage can already be changed, as can screens with a little bit of expertise, and there’s nothing stopping phone designers from increasing the interoperability of parts and connectors. So the bigger question is whether people will go for it. After all, if they won’t, it doesn’t much matter.
And it’s by no means certain that people will go for it, as Kyle Wiens explained last year in a Wired piece lamenting the irreparable nature of the Macbook Pro: “…Apple had given their users a choice. It was up to us: Did we want a machine that would be stuck with 2GB of RAM forever? Would we support laptops that required replacement every year or two as applications required more memory and batteries atrophied? Consumers overwhelmingly voted yes, and the Air grew to take 40 percent of Apple’s notebook sales by the end of 2010.”
But I think we will come around, although it might take a while. The more people get used to a technology, the more they want to tinker with it -- and the more people want to tinker with it, the greater the business opportunity for someone to make it easy, beautiful and fun to tinker with. And the easier, more beautiful, and more fun it is to tinker with, the more people will want to tinker. Just look at what Home Depot has done for DIY home improvement in the past 20 years.
Of course, even if a modular phone does take off, that doesn’t mean everything is rosy. There’s a good chance that it will have the opposite effect of the one intended: Instead of putting up with a lower-resolution camera because you’d have to upgrade the whole phone, you throw the undesirable component away immediately. We could, in the end, dramatically increase our rate of electronics disposal rather than the other way around.
But that depressing thought shall keep for another day. In the meantime, would you want a Phonebloks?