Can a concept modular phone put together by consumers make it in the real world?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Motorola thinks so. Edwin Smith talks to the man with the DIY vision

Your phone rings. You whip it out, but at the crucial moment it slips from your grasp and, like a buttered slice of toast, lands face-down on the floor. When you pick it up, you see that you've smashed the screen (again). "Spider-webbed" is what it's known as in the trade.

Do you send it off to be repaired and try to manage without for 10 days – and pay £60 for the privilege? Or do you try to get an upgrade so you can ditch your old, broken handset? You would have been due one soon, and there's probably something better on the market now anyway, right?

On an individual level, that makes sense (even if you do end up paying for the new phone through your contract). But if modern technology has taught us anything, it's that we're all interconnected; and this kind of groupthink is creating a growing problem. Mountains of e-waste containing lead and other hazardous materials are springing up all over the world. And mobile phones are the worst offenders, with only 11 per cent of the devices recycled in the US. When you consider that the industry ships 1.8 billion new units per year, the scale of the issue starts to make you giddy.

Of course, it doesn't have to be like this. We don't need to upgrade or replace our handsets so often. But doesn't that mean we have to be content to lug around outdated, unfashionable technology? Not according to a 25-year-old Dutch designer called Dave Hakkens.

Last month, Hakkens posted a video on YouTube that presented his Phonebloks concept – a vision for a modular smartphone that could be put together by consumers as if they were making it out of building blocks. There would be a standard-sized "base" or motherboard and after that it would be up to you to plug in components ('"bloks") as you chose. As the video says, if you "love to take pictures, why not upgrade your camera?" Or if you use cloud storage, why not replace your storage blok with a larger, longer-lasting battery? And if a part breaks, or you want a newer version, you need only to replace the relevant part. No need to pay for, or dispose of, a whole phone.

Choosing separate components enables greater personalisation Choosing separate components enables greater personalisation
The video racked up an astounding 12 million views in a week and, perhaps feeding off the vogue for customisable computing that has seen the Raspberry Pi mini-PC and Bug Labs (a company offering snap-together modules to help with creating prototype products) win hearts and minds in technology circles, received reams of positive feedback. So much so, that using a platform called Thunderclap, which allows projects to piggyback on the social-media reach of willing individuals and send a synchronised message to their friends and followers, the Phonebloks philosophy was shared with 350 million people earlier this week.

Speaking to me via a Google+ Hangout from his home studio, Hakkens, who only graduated from design school in Eindhoven this summer, says he believes that a system whereby people could buy individual parts from multiple manufacturers could extend the life of phones and eliminate "built-in obsolescence". "The phone companies are capable of building a phone that lasts for 10 years," he says. "But the strategy and the economic system are not built in that way. My idea is to have an open platform so other companies can get involved and sell their blok."

Hakkens admits, though, that translating the theory into practice will be a major challenge. "Some people say it's impossible," he says, "some say it's possible. So I think it's probably somewhere in the middle."

Each part is clearly marked with the facility it provides Each part is clearly marked with the facility it provides
Of those who think that it won't work – and there are many – the most damaging engineering-based criticism seems to be that, by separating a phone's constituent parts and lengthening the distances that electrical signals have to travel, the device will inevitably end up running much more slowly.

"With current tech it would be difficult to make it work," says Hakkens. "The technology that's used now is not even a little bit designed to be modular or upgradable. But I believe that if we set the target and work towards it, then we can make it happen."

This week, the idea received impressive industry backing. On Tuesday, Google-owned mobile company Motorola announced plans to work with Hakkens to develop a free, open hardware platform for creating modular smartphones. Called Project Ara, Motorola put out a statement saying that: "We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development times."

The Phokblok exists of separate components that can be clicked together The Phokblok exists of separate components that can be clicked together
But even if the Motorola-backed technology can make Hakkens' vision a reality, there will be other obstacles for Phonebloks to overcome, says Natasha Lomas, a writer for the technology website TechCrunch. The handset market is dominated by Samsung and Apple. Samsung sells more than double the handsets of its Californian rival, which, in turn, sells more than three times as many as the nearest challenger.

"Even companies that have been doing it for a long time with huge marketing budgets still aren't able to break through," says Lomas. "If BlackBerry can't make it work with its budget, there's no way a project like this is going to."

However, Phonebloks wouldn't be the first invention to meet with success after being dismissed by critics. At one time or another, the lightbulb, the television, the fax machine and the microchip have all been dismissed as useless, impractical or too expensive to catch on. Things change quickly.

But, Lomas warns, it may, somewhat ironically, be the speed at which technology is developing that scuppers Phonebloks' chances. "The pace of change in the industry is so quick, you just can't plan for a handset that far in advance," she says. "We might not even be using phones in a decade, we could be using a chip in our brains or something like that." Perhaps there's a video on YouTube about that, too.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    Ashdown Group: Part time Network Support Analyst / Windows Systems Administrat

    £30 per hour: Ashdown Group: An industry leading and well established business...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

    £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick