Could the ‘lego phone’ Phoneblok be the next big thing after the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy?

THE days of buying the newest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy could be over as Motorola unveils plans for a custom built smartphone. Grant Roberts explores the concept and if people will be willing to make the change.

Phonebloks: Phone technology that could  change the smartphone industry for good. Photo: Supplied.

Phonebloks: Phone technology that could change the smartphone industry for good. Photo: Supplied.

Google’s Motorola has unveiled plans to build a modular smartphone or ‘lego phone’, with detachable parts enabling users to upgrade specific components instead of buying a new smartphone altogether.

The idea, known as “Project Ara”, will encourage users to not only upgrade parts but to customise their smartphone best suited to them.

Customise your phone according to the components that are most important to you. Photo: Supplied.

Customise your phone according to the components that are most important to you. Photo: Supplied.

The idea was originally created by Phonebloks founder Dave Hakkens six months ago. The Dutch designer came up with the idea when he took apart his favourite camera and discovered the lens motor was broken. Hakkens contacted the manufacturer and was informed it would be cheaper to buy a new camera than replace the broken part.

Hakkens told the BBC it was a shame how people simply throw away electronics when they experience problems or when they become outdated. “With your bike you repair the tyre, you don’t throw the bike away… but for some reason this is what we do with electronics,” Hakkens said.

Hakkens released the idea for a “phone worth keeping” in a YouTube video in order to generate interest around the world. The video has since amassed over 17 million views and 979,372 supporters on the official website.

Two months later, the concept has spread nationwide appearing on CNN, Forbes, Huffington Post and the BBC. And on October 29 Phonebloks used the crowd speaking engine Thunderclap to send out a social networking ping reaching 381,823,577 people worldwide.

The initial target for subscribed supporters was just 500 people and Hakkens has been startled by the enthusiasm shown thus far.

Every day we throw away millions of electronic devices because they get old and worn out, but usually its only one of the components that causes the problem. The rest of the device works fine but it is needlessly thrown away.” – Dave Hakkens, Phonebloks founder

"Bloks". Photo: Supplied.

Pick and choose from different “bloks” to build your phone. Photo: Supplied.

Like lego pieces, the real appeal seems to be the customisation concept allowing users to interchange between “bloks”. The removable modules allow users to swap in or out these bloks for an upgrade, or even remove them altogether in favour of improving a particular component. It is very similar to how you would upgrade a PC.

For example, if a user needs more memory and doesn’t use their camera often, they can downgrade the camera for a smaller one or remove it altogether and swap the memory module for a larger one.

However, for many of us the idea alone could be quite daunting to say the least.

Many smartphone users often find it difficult to change to a rival smartphone, feeling quite comfortable and familiar with the layout. The mere concept of another smartphone potentially upsetting the iPhone or Galaxy debate is a stimulating thought.

Dedicated iPhone user Shiona Jon, a student from South Korea, says although she thinks the concept might work, she wouldn’t swap her iPhone for it.

“I think it’s just going to disappear. The Galaxy has got different models and other advantages so the Lego Phone is probably comparable, but the iPhone will still be my preferred choice,” she said.

Jonathon Tuah is an RMIT student from Malaysia who had recently swapped his iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy and believes the Lego Phone could be his next option.

“The Galaxy is so much nicer and cleaner in every way. It has a better screen, battery life, more memory, so I think this Lego Phone from Motorola will probably attract a lot of people interested in upgrades, rather than those simply be happy with what they are given,” he said.

The Phoneblok is also designed to potentially reduce electronic waste. Photo: Supplied.

The Phoneblok is also designed to potentially reduce electronic waste. Photo: Supplied.

There is also a troubling concern revealed in a report by technological experts CCS Insight that by the end of 2013 at least 80 per cent of the 1.8 billion smartphone users will throw away their old model or they will become permanently disused.

CCS Insight predicts that by 2017 the combined number of mobile phones and tablets in use will far exceed the world’s population, leading to a substantially larger electronic waste output.

Phonebloks’ partnership alongside Motorola hopes to contain the number of mobile phones in circulation, and Hakkens believes that if a phone could be taken apart to improve or repair components easily, users would be able to keep their phones for longer, and in turn minimalise their electronic waste.

Electronic devices are not designed to last. This makes electronic waste one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world and our phone is one of the biggest causes.”

Recycling Manager at MobileMuster, Ruby Rose says the concept could potentially reduce mobile phone waste and is certainly a step in the right direction.

“It is a great step forward and a great example of product stewardship moving up the chain to the design of the products,” she said.

“The mobile phone industry has done a lot to reduce the amount of materials it uses in manufacturing their mobiles and remove hazardous substances over the years.  This is the next logical step to continuing to reduce the overall impact of mobile phone lifecycle on the environment,” said Rose.

Hakken has since uploaded a second video outlining the development process and their partnership alongside Motorola.

Hakken revealed that the PhoneBloks team met with representatives of Nokia, Phillips, Modzilla and Intel but believed only one company stood out from the rest – Motorola.

Recently bought by Google, Hakken believed Phonebloks and Motorola shared a common goal to have a modular, open-source, designed to last, and made-for-the-entire-world smartphone.

The immediate interest generated in the concept indicates that it can indeed compete with the Galaxy and the iPhone, as the latter’s newest model has sold more than six million units worldwide in the last three months; the same duration as the Phonebloks concept has been in circulation.

Photo: Supplied.

Photo: Supplied.

Hakken wants to get people from all over the world involved in this project, but has not found a suitable online platform to host it as yet.

“We are going to build it, an open-source online place where people can help on this project, share ideas, thoughts, feedback and open up discussions,” he said.

Within the next three months Motorola will send out an invitation to companies, start-ups and developers to begin creating bloks, or modules, for the Ara platform. And in summer an alpha release of the module developer’s kit will become available while the smartphone enters its production stage.

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