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Why Snap-Together Cell Phones Will Never Work

The PhoneBloks concept ignores all the things that make cell phones so successful
cell phone symbols



Hank Osuna

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We all know that the cycle of electronics consumerism is broken. Because it's an endless money drain for consumers to keep their gadgets current. Because the never ending desire to show off new features leads to bloat and complexity of design. And because all our outdated, abandoned gadgets have to go somewhere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we Americans threw away 310 million electronic gadgets in 2010 alone. That's about 1.8 million tons of toxic, nonbiodegradable waste in our landfills.

At least somebody's expressing concern about this problem—nearly 15 million somebodies, actually. That's how many people have watched a viral YouTube video called Phonebloks, which touts a new phone concept by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens.

Hakkens wants the people of Earth to rise up and demand a new kind of cell phone, in which the various components—camera, processor, GPS, screen—snap together like Legos.

This system, he says, would let you build exactly the phone you want. If you keep your files online, you could remove the storage module and replace it with a bigger battery. If you are older, you could unplug the camera and replace it with a bigger speaker.

Above all, though, he suggests that the Phonebloks concept would dramatically cut down on e-waste. You wouldn't throw away a phone every other year; instead you'd own just one phone that's built—and rebuilt—to last. If one component broke or became obsolete, you'd just unplug it and replace it with a new one.

Clearly, this concept is consumer catnip. It offers the promise of staying current—without the guilt. And of saving us money and of making it easy for anyone to build a customized phone.

There's only one hitch: Phonebloks will never happen.

The first problem: physics. Today's smartphone is a miracle of miniaturization. To keep the size small, the speed up and the battery life long, the components are packed in as closely as possible. In Apple's iPhone, for example, the memory, the processor and the graphics circuitry are all built into a single chip. A Phonebloks phone would introduce relatively gigantic distances between these elements, which would kill the battery life, speed and size.

Which brings us to the second problem: bulk. Steve Jobs refused to put a removable battery on the iPhone for this reason. A removable battery has to be enclosed in rigid walls so that you, the human, can handle it safely. If every component of your phone were a self-contained, sealed box like that battery, you'd have one very boxy, very bulky, very heavy phone.

The third problem: given the limited real estate, today's smartphone engineers sweat over component placement. Where should the antennas go for the best reception? Where does the speaker go for best audio? With free placement of any block on a Phonebloks phone, you would lose enormous advantages of quality, convenience and speed.

The fourth problem: economics. The Verizons and AT&Ts of the world love that we throw away our phones every other year; indeed, locking us into new two-year contracts is their business model. Why would they support any movement that would disrupt their herd of cash cows?

And finally: aesthetics. Who would buy the big, boxy, gray, sharp-cornered prototype illustrated in the video?

You want to love the Phonebloks concept. You'd love to have more control, greater savings and less guilt. Unfortunately, you'd pay quite a penalty: your phone would be big, heavy, slow, hot, fragile and ugly. Some analysts have even asserted that we would wind up with more electronic waste, a result of consumers discarding more modules more frequently.

There is some good news on the discarded-phone front: from all indications, the smartphone is maturing. The improvements in each year's new models are getting less dramatic. These days it's primarily the software that distinguishes your iPhone from your Samsung—and software leaves nothing in landfills.

Even so, e-waste and obsolescence remain distressing problems. No, Phonebloks is not the solution. But at least it has drawn attention to our current system—and just how broken it is.

This article was originally published with the title "The Problem with Lego Phones."

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