First Phonebloks, now BLOCKS!

It has been a while since we saw the first glimpses of a modular smartphone idea called Phonebloks. The video below made by Dave Hakkens got quite a bit of attention and was shared a lot. As he pointed out that a lot of electronics get thrown away although most of its parts are still fine. With a modular smartphone you would be able to easily replace a broken part or upgrade an old part. As of this moment this video has been watched 21.462.844 times already.

After all the media attention they partnered with Motorola because they were already working on a modular smartphone for over a year at that time. In October 2014 Motorola got acquired by Lenovo, but the modular phone project stayed at Google and goes under the name of Project Ara. When the official release for the final product will be is unclear.

The reason for mentioning Phonebloks and Project Ara is that with the same idea behind a modular product Blocks wearables just started a Kickstarter campaign which reached their target of $250.000 within the hour and are currently above $500.000,-. What do they sell? A modular smartwatch, which can be customized for everyone’s needs.

Their main selling point is that not everyone is the same and we all use different things in our phones and soon watches. Not everyone who buys a smartwatch will use it in the same way. With the different blocks in the band or strap you can choose what options you would like to have in your watch. As an open platform everyone will be able to participate and build modules for the watch. Some of the options are: GPS, NFC, Extra Battery, Heart rate module, fingerprint reader, temperature sensor or a Simcard slot. By letting people select the modules they want there will be no unneccessary waste.

Check it out! What do you think? Are modular devices the future?




4 responses to “First Phonebloks, now BLOCKS!”

  1. 442000fa says :

    The idea of a modular smartphone is very interesting. As you pointed out in your blog post, people have different needs and modularity would allow consumers to customize phones to their own liking. While I like the idea I think the main problem is going to be support. One of Apple’s strength across their entire product line-up is uniformity. They know exactly how to adjust software to hardware and they offer a limited range of hardware options that integrates with this package.

    Not to make this an iPhone vs. Android discussion, as I like both platforms and use products from both camps, but one problem I experienced with Android (in the early phase) is that there are so many manufacturers with different hardware and software specifications that compatibility is more likely to form an issue. While the diversity is also a strength and has allowed the Android platform to make up a large market share, I have personally encountered some issues in the past with resolution and applications that were available for download but ultimately did not work on my smartphone because they were either optimized for a different build or simply did not offer the support. Nowadays the Android platform is a lot more developed and measure have been taken by Google to prevent such thing from happening. But for modular phones I can see that compatibility issues can form an (early) problem. Using an established platform such as Android will minimize this problem. Another concern is that while the idea of having a modular phone and being able to swap out parts sound good, the manufacturers need to keep offering new and up-to-date modules for the idea to have practical use. It would be a shame if the only customization would occur in the beginning, only for users needing to change phones just like other smartphones currently out. Most high-end smartphone manufacturers use one year cycles for their flagships. How often should and will new modules be available?

    All in all I think the idea of modular smartphones is very interesting and I would love for it to work as promised. I am one of these people who switches phones quite often due to getting bored with them or wanting new features, so being able to select new modules instead of buying a brand new phone definitely seems like a fun idea.

  2. 358545sb says :

    First of all, the I’m very font of the idea of a modular phone. Customization to one’s own preferences and an environmentally friendly focus are both aspects that seem very appealing to customers in the current consumer market. However, similar to our classmate’s response above, I also think there are several pitfalls of the technology.

    As said before, the idea is great! But that’s just the idea. In terms of feasibility several problem seem to be inevitable. From an engineering point of view, there is a lot of skepticism. Consider the following Reddit thread:

    While going through their responses and other reactions on the technology, the main problems would become the size of the phone and the cost to produce. To make the idea work, the different modules have to work well independently. To make this possible, the design might require duplicate components. In addition, other smartphones are designed as efficiently as possible to fit all the required technology into an ever-increasingly thin design. This would not be possible with various different components – at least not while maintaining current size standards.

    Due to the modular design of the phone, the cost of production are probably going to increase as well. Current smartphone manufacturers can achieve economies of scale by producing millions of standardized phones. Introducing different modules decrease this effect and inevitable increase production costs. Usage costs might also rise due to the increased vulnerability of working with different modules. The plug and play components might be exposed to water and grit that can reach the components more easily. In addition, frequent plugging in and out the modules can wear down the connector or solder points holding the connectors, leading to increased replacement cost for the customer.

    To conclude, I think the idea is promising. However, under the current technological it would still be unfeasible due to technical issues. After all, a similar phone would have been on the market right now if it actually worked.

  3. 419282hv says :

    Nice article on the Kickstarter campaign: blocks. I myself am very happy with these developments as it truly is a disruptive innovation for the smartwatch/smartphone devices. However, since the mainstream manufacturers currently do not offer such devices (Google’s project ARA is working on it but it is still not released to the public), I am a bit skeptic to this trend as of now. So I have done some reading on the internet to find what cons this modularity brings with it.

    I think everyone is agreeing that technology in your device should be capable of replacing and upgrading just like the regular desktop computers. However, as these devices have become so small, modularity comes with a price. Currently the manufacturers of smartphone/watches try to engineer the parts as close to each other as possible to get maximum speeds. Greatening the distance would only make the devices slower. This is why Apple has engineered the CPU, GPU and RAM on a single chip to keep it as small as possible while gaining maximum speeds. Moreover, the parts would require more power thus making the device bulkier.

    These modular devices might create more e-waste than the current devices do. If we are replacing parts all the time, we throw these individual parts away. Instead of only replacing our phones every (maybe) 2 years, we are throwing away components more frequently.

    Also, the price of the components would not guarantee a cheaper phone in the end. As Moore’s law states that processor speeds will double each two years, it means that we still have to replace our processors, this time in the form of a modular component. It could therefore be more expensive to buy all the modular pieces separately. Just like you would not buy a car in pieces but in one whole.

    I am very curious to see if this modular smartwatch, or others, will be a successful in the coming years.


  4. 437130cb says :

    Very nice to see that you brought phoneblocks back to our attention. I was wondering what the developments currently are on this project, and on modular electronics as a whole. It is completely new to me that they are now trying to develop a modular watch. After doing some proper thinking (and research) I think I would not see this device adding more value to peoples lives, than a ‘normal’ smart watch would do. Here’s why I think why;

    In my opinion, current wearable devices are not as popular as people thought they would be. Everything that needs to be done can be done with a phone and let’s be honest, a smartwatch is actually an extension of the phone. The hype is not as big as expected and that’s why Apple doesn’t want you to know what its iWatches’ sales numbers are. This is strange, since Apple is one of the most popular brands at the moment. Disappointing sales results may have two reasons; first, Apple hasn’t marketed the product properly, or secondly, the watch is just not that special. I think the second argument is the most plausible. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is no hope left for smartwatches.

    For example, a recent development does sound a little more promising to me. On the annual developers conference in San Fransisco, Samsung introduced the concept of Simband, which also is a modular wearable device, but in stead of pre-produced modules, this ‘watch’ functions as an open developer platform. This means that developers can now build, customize and add their own customized health sensors to this watch. This makes it way more customizable than the Bloks watch above. Currently, we’re only talking about health sensors, but it is a matter of time that such a watch will be developed with a wider spectrum than solely ‘health’. This may result in watches being more agile to customers’ demands, which may result in an optimal fit with the customers’ needs.

    However, this is only based on my opinion, which stems from a technology enthousiast and not an expert.


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