“We know we have made a difference”: Phonebloks on the future of the modular smartphone (Interview)

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When the Phonebloks video was released back in September 2013 by Dave Hakkens as part of his design academy graduation project, it quickly went viral. The concept was a game-changer: an environmentally sustainable, modular mobile phone. The video showed a phone built from Lego-like modules, or “blocks,” each part easily replaceable and upgradable. Need a bigger battery or a better camera? Don’t worry about buying a new phone – just replace a block. The project’s Thunderclap campaign was first aimed at reaching 500 people to support the idea. It ended up with nearly a million. Soon after, Phonebloks partnered with then-Motorola’s Project Ara to create the world’s first modular phone.

Phonebloks isn’t a manufacturer though; rather, it exists to guide the mobile industry to accelerate the development and production of a modular phone, “a phone worth keeping”.  This goal is achieved through the community, which is an open-source platform for the exchange of ideas between users and mobile manufacturers. We talked to Phoneblok’s Editor-In-Chief Tomas Halberstad to find out more about the company’s vision, its future plans and the challenges it faces.

Pocketnow: Phonebloks is based on the idea that manufacturers and mobile phone users should collaborate to create a unique platform for the modular phone. Could you tell us about the vision and philosophy behind that?

Tomas Halberstad: The basic idea behind Phonebloks is creating a modular phone, so that when a part breaks you’d be able to replace it. At the time the idea was conceived, Dave Hakkens, the founder, was a design student working on his graduation project. He likes technology and he likes the environment. So, he thought he should do something to combine these two. Around that time his digital camera broke, and he decided to fix it on his own. He took the camera apart and saw that the lens motor was broken. But, he could not locate a replacement for that part in any repair shop nor when he talked to the manufacturer. Everyone simply told him to buy a new camera. He didn’t want a new camera though; he just needed that small component. Dave did some research and discovered that electronic waste streams are some of the fastest growing waste-streams in the world, with mobile phones being a big part of that. So, although at the beginning he thought about modularity for all kinds of tech, he decided to focus on mobile phones. This is how he came up with the Phonebloks concept.

In short, it’s a concept for a phone worth keeping: you’re supposed to want to keep the phone for a long time. Dave envisioned it to be a phone for the whole world, so it should be open-source and everyone should collaborate in making it. It was just a graduation project at first and he had no idea it would expand the way it did.

P: So, at what point did that change? At what point did it become more than a graduation project?

TH: Dave had a YouTube channel and thought maybe he could show the mobile phone industry that a mobile phone like this is needed. He made a video and posted it online to see if people responded. At first it was posted as a private video that somehow leaked onto Reddit while he was on vacation, and then it just exploded. In the first 24 hours it received about a million views. People were calling from everywhere. The website he then had for Phonebloks had crashed. That’s when he realized that maybe this is much bigger than he had first expected it to be.

P: The video you mention is the one we’re all familiar with, right? I had no idea that it was leaked, I had thought that it was a scheduled release.

TH: Yeah. He was going to release it but somehow it leaked onto Reddit ahead of time and just blew-up from there.

phonebloks views

P: Reducing waste is very important, but who is the target customer for Phonebloks? Is this meant to be a phone for the average Joe or is this going to be targeted more at the geeks involved?

TH: Our goal is a phone for the whole world, for everyone. We think that the key to modular cellular phones is customization. You should be able to customize it according to your needs. Of course, there’s the obvious customization, like having a bigger camera if you like taking pictures or a bigger battery to make it last longer. But, there are other types of customization as well. For example, if you have diabetes you can have a blood-sugar measurement module, or if you have any kind of impairment that can be aided by technology, you can have that as a module in the phone. We also see it customizable for national and geographical needs, different standards in different parts of the world.
We want everyone to have this. Of course, the geeks will be the first to jump on the band wagon, but they’re also the ones criticizing us the most right now.

P: What kind of criticism are you getting?

TH: Well, many people have the misconception that we are a mobile-phone manufacturer. People think we’re going to build this phone ourselves. Even though we’ve been very open with the fact that we’re not going to build this phone, from the get-go. So, when people realize we’re not manufacturers and that it isn’t a quick process, they give us a hard time.

P: There’s Phonebloks, there’s Google’s Project Ara and there are a couple of other modular projects. Given the press that all of these have gotten; I think there’s a real confusion over who’s who. So, can you tell us briefly, just for the record, what is the Phonebloks consortium? I mean, your goal is to change the industry, right?

TH: Yeah. It’s important to note that our goal is to change the industry from within, which is why we have decided early-on not to manufacture the phone ourselves. That would require a lot of manpower, resources and patents, which we don’t have. So, we decided to try and change the industry from the inside, by partnering with firms that have the tools to build this phone. We’re an online community, we’re an idea, an initiative, and our aim is to accelerate the production of a modular mobile phone.

P: We’ve heard that it was Motorola that actually approached the Phonebloks founder to kick-off the involvement with Project Ara. Is that the way it happened? Can you tell us how the situation came about?

TH: Yes, absolutely. They approached us; they contacted Dave after the video was released. It turned out that Motorola had a modular phone in development for some time before our idea came out, which we had no knowledge of. I’m sure many mobile phone manufacturers are actually developing some kind of modular mobile phone without speaking about it.

ara-demo

Motorola’s Project Ara concept model

P: You think this is something that is being developed in parallel across the world? People just got the same idea at the same time?

TH: We’ve been getting it a lot. People have contacted us telling us that they have a similar idea. Modularity in design is nothing new. If you look at the furniture industry here in Sweden back in the 50’s, it was a big thing and for many of the same reasons we’re doing it in Phonebloks now. So, it was just applying the idea of modularity onto technology. I think that it’s a logical next step; therefore, many people are bound to have that idea.

P: So, Motorola saw the video along with everyone else and they went out of their way to contact you and suggest you work together on this?

TH: Yeah, they contacted Dave, he went over there and got to see what Motorola was doing. They had a few propositions for him and in the end the partnership looks just as you can see it now on our website. We have some insight into Project Ara; we have input through our community. The situation has naturally changed since Google had sold Motorola but kept Project Ara. We’re still working with them and for now they’re our only partners. We think it’s a good collaboration for us to start with.

P: And you’re not worried about that relationship changing as a result of the Lenovo sale? It’s still going to be you guys and Project Ara people within Google?

zte-logo-001[1]TH: Yeah, and our experience tells us that relationships in this industry change all the time anyway, because everything moves so fast. Even if the project still belonged to Motorola, over time it would have changed with someone getting a new job, for example, or anything else of the sort. So, we’re not worried about it.

P: You’ve mentioned ZTE on your site as well; it is preparing its own modular solution. Are you planning on collaborating with them? In an ideal world, would you want to be roping them into this as well?

TH: Absolutely, we love the idea of a modular mobile phone and we would love it if any mobile-phone manufacturer would build one. Naturally, we’d like to be a part of it, because we think we have some great ideas towards making it sustainable, environmental, and made for the whole world. We like ZTE and would love for them to contact us. Currently we don’t have a partnership with them, but who knows what may happen?

P: Could you tell us a bit more about the community itself? When you’re running a community like this, with many thousands of people contributing, what influence do they have on the project?

TH: Well, Phonebloks is its community. In a sense, that is all we are. We have a big following on social media and we have our own forum, our own community of people who can talk with each-other about this. On that forum we have about 17-18K members. The way they influence the project is for instance, Project Ara members or Google can come to us and ask direct questions – we call them challenges. We put a time-frame for each challenge. For example, not too long ago we had a challenge that said “how would you like the modular phone block-store to be built?”

P: You mean like a store for individual blocks?

TH: Yeah, that could have been one of the answers. We asked the community what kind of store they would prefer – an online store, or a store that’s more like Apple Store; or maybe something completely different? What kind of experience would you – as a user – like when setting up your mobile phone?
So, we took that to our members and they were very creative.  We got about 400-500 answers, and we present these answers to Google to show them what our focus-group said.

P: Speaking of challenges, what’s your biggest one? Is there a particular difficulty that you’re working to overcome, that is bigger than all the rest?

TH: We like working with problem-solving, often trying to converge two completely different and mutually-exclusive issues. For instance, we want the phone to last for 10 years, but we also want it to be recyclable, or even biodegradable. That sounds unlikely at first, and it is something we’re working on behind the scenes, trying to work out which materials can be used to make it both very lasting and also biodegradable. So that’s one big problem.

P: One of the biggest hurdles that I see to the adoption of this idea is the need consumers have for novelty. Replacing a component is not as sexy as replacing the whole phone. Because when you replace the entire phone you get something that’s all new and bright and shiny. Has that been discussed at all?

TH: You’re touching on what is probably our biggest challenge. There has been research about how the tech industry will survive in the future. Apple releases a phone every 12 months and research shows that consumers may not want to replace the phone more often than every 12 months. So, they have to find something new to keep the industry growing. Modularity could be one of the keys here; they would be able to sell modules. It’s also an economical problem for the industry, the fact that consumers want to use new stuff all the time. Our major challenge here is that we need a paradigm-shift in consumer behavior.

P: And you’re trying to drive that paradigm shift.

TH: We’re trying to find the key to making people satisfied in terms of the psychological need of having something new all the time, while keeping what they have. We talked about converging two distinct points, and this is an example of this. I wish we had a solution for it. I think we must find a solution because the environmental situation in the world, Ghana for example, where much of our electronic waste ends up, can’t go on.

I understand the need for technology; I understand the need people have for having something new. I have an iPhone, and even though I don’t buy every model that comes out, I really like buying a new mobile phone and a new computer once in a while.

phonebloks hwP: Where do you think Phonebloks and modular phones in general would be a year from now? What’s your opinion on that?

TH: Well, Google has mentioned they will release Project Ara during the first quarter of 2015. Other brands will probably follow. I think in order for our vision to be reached, the manufacturers need to start talking to each other and work with more open platforms. I’m not sure that’s going to happen but we will be working towards that. In my opinion, a year from now we’ll have one or two modular mobile phones on the market. If they succeed, many surely will follow their lead. Just google images of modular mobile phones and you’ll see that many are working on something. Nokia likely has something they’re working on, and Apple probably has something as well, but maybe not a mobile phone. I saw a very interesting video online, called “Blocks” and it’s about a modular watch, they mention us so it’s definitely something that derives from us. We’re just glad that people take this initiative and put it out there.

P: That must give you some satisfaction, having inspired a groundswell in this kind of movement.

TH: Yeah, absolutely. I think this was beneath the surface. If we weren’t the first, someone else would have done it. I’m glad we’re inspiring people to develop modular technology and it makes me confident that modular phones and modular consumer electronics at large will happen.

P: Could you see the manufacturers collaborating among themselves to build parts that would fit a basic platform for a modular phone?

TH: Absolutely, we’d like Phonebloks to be a kind of informal meeting ground for companies. We want it to help manufacturers contact each other, especially with companies that might not have had that platform before. So, we absolutely hope that through Phonebloks manufacturers will start developing things together.

P: And if people want to contribute they just have to visit Phonebloks.com, is that right?

TH: Yes. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we have over 17K members on our forum and it currently needs a much bigger server to host it as it grows. We are only four guys at Phonebloks, working voluntarily, no one gets paid anything. We accept donations on our webpage and that is only in order to keep the technical side of Phonebloks running. Maybe someday we’ll get paid and maybe we won’t, but we’ll know we have made a difference.

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About The Author
Alex Greenspan