Early in September of this year, the PhoneBloks project popped up on Thunderclap. I kind of ignored it because it was just a designer saying “this is how phones should be”. There is no shortage of people doing mock-ups of a “better” product or UI redesigns. Whatever.

Then last week, Motorola announced Project Ara and a collaboration with PhoneBloks.

Led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, Project Ara is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.

Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones. To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.

I have a whole bunch of thoughts about this which would take thousands of words, so I’ll try to get it short.

  1. A certain class of tech enthusiast will love these phones. And the gadget review blogs will love them too. The other 98% of the population just wants a phone that works, not one they have to fiddle with and worry about.
  2. This would be hell for developers. How are you supposed to test your applications.
  3. I don’t think this will really make much difference for people who just throw electronics away without recycling them properly. If anything people will feel even less worried about it because “it’s not like they are throwing the whole phone away, it’s just the camera/screen/NIC/whatever right?”
  4. I think the non-tech geek population prefers the appliance model of computing. That is kind of why this generation of SmartPhones and Tablets have really taken off. It’s simple.

The upgrade grind

It’s been seven years since I owned a desktop Gaming PC (and slightly less than that since I had a PC laptop). The continuous upgrade grind every six months or so as new games pushed the limits of the hardware was not fun. It was a chore. My gaming is almost exclusively Console and iOS and much cheaper and less complicated.

In my experience you could only ever upgrade a PC so far until you had to replace the motherboard because it was too slow for the new video card/ram/CPU that you wanted or it didn’t have the interfaces for the new stuff. And after a certain point you would need a new power supply because the old one couldn’t supply the load of your new hardware. It was never simple.

Recycling

Also PhoneBloks pushes the environmentally friendly angle pretty heavily. A big part of the pitch is that right now, whenever something goes wrong with your phone, you have to just throw the whole thing away and buy a new one and that is creating huge amounts of waste. Maybe some people do. I don’t know that many people who just turf their $700 smartphone if the screen gets cracked. They usually suffer with it for the length of their contract or try to get it fixed. And if it can’t get replaced, there are responsible methods of disposing of it. Apple has a recycling program. Samsung also has one. I don’t know about other manufacturers.

So what happens when people can start upgrading individual components of their phones?

Probably more waste. Right now, you buy your iPhone (probably on a two year contract) and hang onto it for at least a year, probably two. In many cases much longer than that. I still see lots of iPhone3G and 3GS handsets in the wild. Once you introduce being able to switch out components, what happens to the old screens, batteries, cameras etc. If the units failed, then they either get recycled responsibly, or they get tossed in the trash. If they were still good, then they might get passed on to someone else or resold. Until they break and then we are in the same spot again. Or it gets stuck in a drawer or box somewhere for a year or two until someone discovers them during a cleanup or moving house at which point they just get thrown out.

Recycling is less a technical issue, once you are using recyclable materials with good processes. It’s a social one. People still have to make sufficient effort.