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Phonebloks and the Impractical Dream of Smartphone Hardware Modularity

08 Oct 2013

In August a design concept called Phonebloks gained widespread attention among the internet’s technology crowd. The concept video painted a picture of a mobile smartphone that was entirely modular in its design, allowing it to be easily repaired and upgraded. These traits being quite different from our modern mass manufactured smartphones we have today.

phoneblocks2Phonebloks sounds like a neat concept to anyone who has ever had to replace their damaged phone or desired an upgrade (read: everyone.) However, this concept is highly impractical anytime soon. I have spent a large part of my career designing and tearing down electronic things and have analyzed the makeup of modern smartphones and hi-tech products in a systematic process. Phonebloks will likely not be brought to market in the near future for any number of reasons, but I’ll cover only a couple hardware specific problems.

The phone would be much more expensive and slower (and bigger, heavier, power inefficient, etc.) because you lose the system and cost optimizations that mass manufacturing for one device provides. All modern products, much less smartphones, are designed for manufacturing, cost, size, weight, performance, power consumption, and so forth. No smartphones are designed for modularity because modularity contradicts all the previous design methodologies and is not economically feasible nor desirable by the consumer.

The proposed pin interface to easily snap different Lego-like blocks into the Phonebloks phone to gain different hardware features or speeds would not actually work as designed. The major electronic IC packages (a more realistic kind of block) in smartphones do not use pins anymore, but instead use BGA, QFN, and other surface mount soldered connections that are more permanent than a socket pin-style connection. There are 33 main ICs in the once modern Samsung Galaxy S III and the number of pins required would be almost 5000 pins for the main electronic parts alone (source: UBM TechInsights.) And those “pins” have a distance between them that is impressively submillimeter small.

If one did design a new block pin system that encapsulates existing IC packaging tech, the result would be a phone that is significantly larger, thicker, and unsexy. Consumers do not want unsexy products. And there would be substantial risk of damaging or frying parts if consumers are handling the blocks, not to mention dropping their Phoneblok phone. Also the mainboard, which the blocks snap into, would have to rewire itself according to what blocks are located where. This is not going to happen in such a highly modular complex system without developing some standard high speed interconnect type interface that the industry widely adopts. FPGAs however have embodied the spirit of rewiring on a much smaller and simpler logic level system.

phoneblokspeopleTeams of highly specialized engineers from a large variety of disciplines are required to bring the modern smartphones we love to our eager hands. When the proposer of Phonebloks mentioned in his video getting the right people involved to make this concept platform a reality, he seemed to have left out the one role that is most essential, the engineer.

Try taking apart your modern smartphone all the way to its most essential bits of silicon and stare in awe at the amazing complexity, ingenuity, and engineering that is required to deliver that latest Facebook post to your desperate eyes. Or better yet, try taking apart your smartphone and putting it back together without it breaking. This Phonebloks concept is clearly an idea proposed by someone who has never done exactly that.