The Lifestyle Corner / The Quest Hall

Building “Bloks” to a New Type of Smartphone Altogether

[ By Nafisa Shamim ]

Dave Hekkens put his YouTube video Phonebloks up in September 2013, hoping to garner enough views and support by the following month to snag the attentions of major smartphone companies and tech businesses around the world.

Fast forward a year and a few months, and now, Project Ara, a developmental project under the helm of Google, is spearheading what Hekkens’ had envisioned, with the pilot product hopefully to launch some time in 2015.

But why is this significant?

The “Phonebloks” video, typical of revolutionary ideas and concepts in the Internet-age, took cyber-space by storm. Soon it became viral, currently recording up to over 21 million views on YouTube, and hitting the headlines of many prominent newspapers and blogs, including TIME magazine and The Verge.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

The idea was simple enough – instead of having to throw away our smartphones just because one part of it becomes damaged, wouldn’t it be possible to simply remove and replace the damaged part?

The Phoneblok model suggested by Hekkens in his video consisted of components you’d find in any normal smartphone – battery, storage, camera, etc. etc. What makes this phone different, though, is that they all come as separate, removable blocks, all plugged into a ‘base’, the motherboard of this phone if you will, that connects them all into a giant circuit that makes everything run together.

So, next time you happen to drop your phone and maybe crack the screen a little, or jostle your camera, you don’t have to toss the whole thing away, or fork up all your savings for the next couple of months for a new phone. Simply remove and replace the part that’s no longer working, and there you go – you have a fully functioning “phone worth keeping”.

At least, that’s the idea.

And it’s a very good idea, at that. Not only would owning a modular phone unit like Hekkens has suggested and Project Ara is trying to implement be kinder to your pocket, it would also be a huge step toward tackling the problem of electronic waste. Much of what we throw away in the form of electronics and gadgets are not biodegradable – because they don’t break down or decompose naturally, they pile up, pollute and more often than not become toxic waste poisoning the earth’s natural ecosystems. And one of the biggest consequences of this is climate change, which is hitting the world at large hard enough.

[ To read more about climate change, check out ETC. Magazine’s article Climate Change: Not Within Our Control? ]

Hekkens doesn’t intend to crowd fund the project or raise enough capital to launch it himself – because, let’s face it, a phoneblok would be facing off against some pretty stiff competition. What with Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and HTC’s M9 being released in March, and the new iPhone set to hit the stores later in the year, tech-enthusiasts are already anticipating the new innovations, styles and upgrades slated for 2015.

Instead, Hekkens’ inclination is more toward getting these very same companies – Samsung, Apple, HTC and the other giants in the smartphone industry – to acknowledge the concept and benefits of a modular cell-phone, and start incorporating it into their products.

In that regard, Project Ara is a step in the right direction.

[Image Credit: TIME magazine. Components of a working Project Ara prototype – consisting of the “endo” or endoskeleton frame (the base), screen and other electronic parts and 3D printed components.]

[Image Credit: TIME magazine. Components of a working Project Ara prototype – consisting of the “endo” or endoskeleton frame (the base), screen and other electronic parts and 3D printed components.]

Partnering with Hekkens, who, along with his associates, currently runs the online Phonebloks community to brainstorm with the social media population at large about the problem of electronic waste, Project Ara hopes to put forward limited editions of the first, fully-operative modular cell-phone unit.

How is it different from any other smart-phone?

Not only is this smartphone different from whatever else you’ve seen in the market, it also has the potential of being different from every other person who happens to own one too. Project Ara is focusing on making the smartphone fully customizable – as Hekkens postulated in his first video, if you generally save all your work on, say, Google Drive or Dropbox or iCloud, you can opt out of having a storage block in favour of a bigger battery. Watch a lot of series on your phone? How about switching up your screen for one with better resolution and HD? Want to personalize your phone’s look? Why not get a customized shell for your phone without the hassle of finding the right cover?

As the friendly folks at Project Ara put it, “The possibilities are limitless”.

The possibilities are also really worth thinking about. Phones are less likely to need replacing as the years go on – you can just replace the part that’s acting up with a new one at only a fraction of the cost of a new smartphone altogether, which don’t, after all, come cheap. And these replacements don’t just have to be when a part is broken – you could always opt to switch with a newer upgrade or version of your screen or battery or camera, leaving the rest of the phone untouched. Even if you get tired of how your phone looks after a while, personalizing and customizing it is still likely to be easier and cheaper.

The possibilities are, indeed, limitless. If Project Ara takes off, we might just be toeing the line of yet another revolution in not just the smartphone but the electronic industry as a whole – and perhaps that revolution is long overdue.

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