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:_

You can't really build a thing that goes into the unforgiving real-world pockets of people out of little user-assembled modules.

The phones we have today are marvels of integration with the components fitting tightly together and no space wasted. Consumer electronics must also conform to very demanding specifications for exactly controlled electromagnetic emissions in order to be certified for sale in any developed country. Meeting these requirements and passing certifications with a new phone means a deeply involved design process where every part of the device is considered together as a system.

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:

- This is certainly possible with PC components today, yet only hard-core techies tend to assemble their own systems. Most people prefer to buy complete systems and let someone else do (at least most of) the integration. - Microsoft just jumped into hardware with their Surface work, because they realized that the software-only approach isn't resulting in a competitive product in the mobile space (and anything not part of the 'core' device needs ramp-up time if it's not there from the beginning stages). Google licenses Android but only because they have close partnerships, as well as a (relatively) mature and well-entrenched mobile OS - and they still make a core device (Nexus) as a proof-of-concept.

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:

- There's no incentive for the manufacturers to do this. In addition to all the above, why would they want to sell you the "backplate" only and lose control of the rest of the handset? Apple and Samsung (primarily) create great devices because they own pretty much the entire device (I say "pretty much" for Samsung) and can ensure quality. Can you imagine Samsung selling the "base" and people snapping in "Joe's GPS module" and "Sam's discount radio chip?" Who would you blame for system failures or battery drain? Samsung, because it's the only common element.... but all these components require low-level access. Apple controls quality end-to-end, because they control all the hardware AND all the software at this point, as all (legal) apps have to go through their approval.

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.