Will 'Lego-like' smartphones catch on?
Dec. 2, 2013
by Mark Ollig

As children, many of us enjoyed playing with Lego building blocks.

Yours truly remembers using Legos for creating (what I thought was) an impressive-looking telephone I proudly showed off to my siblings.

It turns out the idea of building a phone using small, interchangeable modular blocks wasn’t such a far-off idea after all.

A new ground-breaking concept on how the next generation of smartphones may be constructed is currently being worked on.

And it definitely has a nostalgic Lego-like twist to it.

Phonebloks, a small company in the Netherlands, came up with the idea to create “a phone worth keeping.” They want to show the world there can be a smartphone created which the public will not need to dispose of when wanting a better model.

Their idea would also help reduce the growing problem of discarded electronic material referred to as E-waste.

An important benefit of having people keep their smartphones longer is the reduction in the amount of E-waste being accumulated in landfills each year.

One of the largest contributors to E-waste is discarded mobile devices.

A statement on Phoneblok’s website says, “The market of electronic devices is growing rapidly, but it feels like we are building disposable stuff. Every time we make something new, we completely throw away the old one. Imagine all the good displays, Bluetooth’s, and speakers we have thrown away.”

Phoneblok’s vision is to provide the public with a mobile device which is easily customizable and upgradable by simply using modularized, rectangular, plug-in parts called “bloks.”

Their Facebook page talks about a new type of smartphone which “would consist of a main [circuit] board onto which bloks could be snapped on by the user, like Legos. Each blok is responsible for a unique function of the phone.”

The bloks have attached metal connector pins, which when snapped onto the main board, complete the electrical, signaling, and logic connections.

People would no longer need to be buying a whole new smartdevice, thus reducing the E-waste caused by discarding smartphones which still have many working parts on them.

I noticed the idea of this totally new type of smartphone has gained a lot of attention; talk of it has spread quickly throughout the Internet’s popular social media streams.

The folks from Phonebloks met with various industry leaders, organizations, and companies to describe, in detail, their concept and hopes for creating a phone worth keeping.

The company which created the first mobile cellphone, Motorola became seriously interested, and is now acting upon Phoneblok’s idea.

“Recently, we met Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks. Turns out, we share a common vision: to develop a phone platform that is modular, open, customizable, and made for the entire world,” said Paul Eremenko, who is with Motorola’s Project Ara team.

Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group has been working with the Project Ara team for over a year in hopes of turning this common vision into a reality.

This group is designing the new hardware modules and built-in software for the project.

While reading through Motorola’s online blog, I learned by creating customer upgradable smartphones, they hope to “... create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

One photograph presented the layout of the many types of smartphone modularization concept designs which could be used by end-users. They appeared somewhat futuristic, while physically displaying a logical-functional perspective.

You can see the concept photo designs at http://tinyurl.com/bytes-ara.

The designs use what Motorola calls “endoskeleton and modules.”

The endoskeleton is the actual structural frame which holds all the modules (bloks) in place.

An individual module blok can be designed for use as a processor, antenna, data storage, camera, display screen, Wi-Fi, gyroscope, audio input, keyboard, an extra battery, or any future enhancement.

A medical “pulse oximeter” is one example of a module blok which could be plugged onto the smartphone’s main board.

One would be able to easily upgrade their existing smartphone to a faster processor by simply unplugging the old processor modular blok, and plugging in the new one.

To show Motorola is serious about the future of modularized smartphones, it has partnered with 3D Systems (a 3D printing company) to build new components using 3D printing technology.

I noted the modular blok components will be made using eco-friendly, biodegradable materials.

The Motorola Project Ara modularized smartphone will be using the Android OS (operating system).

As most of us know, Google owns the Android OS and Motorola.

Motorola said it is “developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.”

A module developer’s kit for start-up companies and software developers will soon be made available so they can begin creating prototype module bloks to be used with the new modularized smartphones.

So, how would you feel about being able to easily snap to a modular component blok onto your smartphone in order to upgrade or customize it?

We would be able to add a new feature, or replace any faulty module blok – instead of discarding and replacing the entire smartdevice.

I like this idea. It would reduce E-waste, and save us money from not having to purchase a brand-new smartphone so often.

We could also personalize our smartphones on an ongoing basis with the latest features we want on them.

No mention of pricing yet, but stay tuned – it appears we will be entering the Lego-like smartphone era soon.

Dave Hakkens of Phoneblocks posted an informative video less than a month ago on YouTube.

I hope you will watch it at: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-phoneblok.

For more information, visit: http://www.phonebloks.com.

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