Why The Lego-Style ‘Phonebloks’ Concept Will Fall Apart

The idea of a modular smartphone with individually swappable pieces is genius. Too bad it's impossible.

The Phonebloks concept, an idea for a block-based “modular” smartphone, is a borderline-brilliant, environmentally conscious, I-should’ve-thought-of-that victory of design. If you aren’t familiar, the idea goes like this: phones (and other gadgets) are usually thrown out after a single piece breaks. (Screen smashed? Toss that piece of junk.) Instead, a phone with discrete, separable, pieces–one block for memory, one for the camera, etc.–would only need to replace the parts that are broken. Plus, it’s a truly customizable device: if you want a better camera, just add it in; if you need more speed, replace the appropriate chunks.

But there’s good reason to think the whole idea will fall apart faster than a Lego castle in the path of a toddler.

First, there’s the problem of technical feasibility. If you’re engineering- or electronics design-minded, there’s a Reddit thread full of skepticism there for your examination. The main complaint, though, boils down to: This thing would be huuuuge. _(In, like, the bad, physical way.) Most phones are cleverly designed to cram as many intertwined electronics inside as possible. It’s almost unavoidable that a modular phone, with all the parts deliberately separate from each other and laid on a flat plane, would be gigantic, heavy, or extraordinarily expensive, or fragile. User frumperino sums up the thread nicely with this:_

But, sure, technology moves fast: maybe there are some smart folks out there who can come together and make it happen. Impossible is a strong word. After all, there have been other attempts at modular phones, even if they didn’t make it very far.

Still, in the Phonebloks vision, there’s one more potential snag: the companies who make our smartphones and accessories, Phonebloks suggests, would come together to make Phoneblok versions of their products. A camera from Canon, maybe, or a processor from Intel. On the NY Tech Meetup listserv, John Keenan, who’s done work in mobile technology, astutely points out how self-assembled gadgets are the realm of tech geeks, even if Phonebloks made the system as easy as snap-on, snap-off. On the business side, meanwhile, making your own software and asking companies to conform to it could be a risky proposition:

It’s also worth questioning how closely companies would need to become involved to make blocks that are compatible with Phonebloks, and if they’d be willing to cede quality control over to a much, much smaller device and team:

Which all isn’t to say, if it works, Phonebloks couldn’t be a great choice for the environmentally aware, geeky crowd, or even that there’s no chance everything will go perfectly according to plan, and the final product wil be a indistinguishable from the concept video, while every hardware company will want to join in. But there’s room to wonder if it’s a better idea in practice than execution.