Phonebloks: A customizable smartphone for the rest of your life

Phonebloks could reduce e-waste by allowing upgrades for 'blok' components rather than the whole smartphone.
By KRISTEN BUTLER,  |  Sept. 27, 2013 at 7:31 AM
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Imagine a smartphone that could last a lifetime. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens has, and he calls the concept Phonebloks.

The modular smartphone allows users to customize and upgrade certain parts -- or "bloks" -- rather than the entire device. Each blok contains an isolated component, such as a camera or wifi, and they click together like Lego blocks.

The design is a response to the growing problem of electronic waste, driven largely by phones that get thrown away after just a year or two, followed by more frequently upgraded computers.

"I don't like the direction electronics are heading, Hakkens said. "They get more disposable and get a shorter life with every model. This gives a lot of e-waste. The idea is to set up a platform which, if used correctly, can reduce the amount of waste significantly."

Global e-waste output is now some 20-50 million metric tons annually and growing, according to Greenpeace estimates. E-waste now makes up five percent of all municipal waste sold worldwide.

Hakkens launched his Phonebloks concept earlier this month, and though he hasn't yet asked for funding to develop the devices, he's been drumming up support on the "crowd-speaking" platform Thunderclap.

The YouTube video showing the modular Phoneblok concept has already been viewed nearly 15 million times at the time of this writing. The project even has the endorsement of actor Elijah Wood and other celebrities.

Phonebloks are still far from market, and some in the industry don't expect the project will even make it that far.

The inventor of the cell phone, Martin Cooper, thinks the idea is "well meaning" but unlikely to become reality. "The main reason that the Phoneblok will not hit the market is it will cost more, be bigger and heavier, and be less reliable ... By the time it could be brought to market, the problem that engendered it will be gone."

But even if Phonebloks don't make it to market, the design's popularity shows people are tired of upgrading phones so frequently, and some say the major players should take notice.

"Hopefully the popularity of the Phonebloks concept will spark more action from the major manufacturers," said Tom Dowdall, climate and energy spokesperson for Greenpeace. "It should not be beyond the innovative phone companies to make products that are upgradable and designed to last."

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