'Phonebloks' pitch video describes LEGO-like modular gadget idea


#1

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#2

Exceedingly cool and forward-thinking.

Roadblocks(?):

  1. It assumes a huge and ever-evolving component-product manufacturing stream (as chips get faster, cameras get more sensitive, new components are invented, etc).
  2. Could it be aided or hindered by release as an open standard to which component-makers could choose to subscribe?
  3. Form factors tend to evolve with human needs. Unless this platform can evolve in the same way, it's doomed to the same drawer as early-90s phonebricks.

#3

The modular cell phone concept seems to arise every 3 yrs or so and then fade away... The last iteration that I recall was an Israeli company -- Google pause -- Modu:
Modular Phone Maker Modu Closing Doors | ZDNet


#4

It's surprising he went this far without talking to an electrical engineer first....


#5

Some of these "blocks" are currently millimeters in size in a standard smartphone, made so in the name of engineering efficiency. Cute idea, works for charm bracelets, not for phones.


#6

That's a really cool idea. Too bad it would never work.

There are a bunch of reasons why this is a complete nonstarter. The biggest and most fundamental is that it basically requires every component in the system to share the same bus, and it has to be a very high speed high performance bus because the processor and graphics are on it as is the display. So you have to have an expensive bus communication chip inside every component, no matter how cheap and slow. Even the webcam and SD card reader. This means duplicating the same functionality dozens of times, which means dozens of expensive power hungry high speed bus chips in the system.

Not only would your battery life be pants and the whole phone be slow, but it would cost a small fortune to build. Probably $2,000 or more when you factor in the costs of miniaturizing and packaging everything.

I also fail to see how this reduces waste very much. All of the extra packaging alone for the different components would add a lot of waste, and most parts of the phone get refreshed every couple of years. You might get away with keeping the old webcam, but the battery will be shot for sure and the CPU will be slow and the antenna will have to be replaced because you're on LTE now instead of 3G, etc...


#7

Sure, you can possibly make a phone that does something in this vein: but it will be a decade behind what other phones can do for it's size. All that material there for making the modules work is space not filled with batteries, heat sinks, etc. So you'll have a $2000 phone that runs slower than the G1 did when it came out and will last for 1 hour of talk or 15 of standby and it will weigh as much as 6-10 iphones.


#8

Such a great concept, but it will never work.


#9

The TNG borg and the Stargate replicators both just got cyber-boners.


#10

So even some bizarro universe, in which this actually becomes a real thing, you're just throwing your phone away piece-by-piece, rather than all at once.


#11

All I want is a standardized battery suitable for a variety of modern phones, cameras, tablets, music players etc. that I can buy off the Energizer rack at the supermarket.


#12

From the title I thought the phone itself would be a builing block. Imagine all of your old phones would work like smart lego blocks, to built an interactive, eh, paperweight.


#13

I feel as though this is the Star Trek conceptualization of engineering: plug and play all the way down. I am quite skeptical whether we could do this. The hardware challenges are enormous, since operations currently running on the processor (such as image processing) would have to moved over to a chip or broken into a standardized communication language. In the former case, it means duplication of processing, which is wasteful of space, while the latter slows down communication since moving away from a hard-wired to modular approach would require additional communication protocols and such.

Maybe I am wrong, but I don't see this coming in anywhere near the size of the current smartphones. It is likely to be large and bulky using current technology.


#14

First I was thinking "Neat!" kind of like PCs. Then I remembered even PCs change about every 4 years. The ram changes speed then type. The CPU socket changes. The video card bus changes. About the only thing that possibly stays the same is the hard drives and the case. Every time I've built a new PC the only thing I could actually move was the drives and even those I would usually upgrade given the price/storage ratio had quadrupled in those 4 years. Even the CD drives would change. First PC was a CD, then a writable CD, then a writable CD + BluRay, then a writable BluRay. In other words I replaced the whole thing every time. There might have been a few incremental upgrades.

I wonder if that was a net positive (only bought/made a new machine every 4 years instead of every 2) or a net negative (upgrading things I would have made due with if I couldn't)


#15

I'm pretty much in agreement with your assessment of the hardware limitations, but I'll play devils advocate for a moment.

Sharing the same bus: perhaps a miniature version of something like the PCI bus can be developed? On a PC the bus controller is in the northbridge and southbridge, and the expansion cards don't have anything particularly special for a bus interface.

CPUs are trending towards including those bridges on the die, so it's possible at some point that breadboard where all the bits plug in would be the exposed high speed bus interface. I don't think that many devices need an expensive chip to interface with it.

power hungry: because they're modular, why not be able to actually just turn power off to the device when not using it? Some sort of automagic OS controlled thing can power the peripherals. I believe power management works like this already.

It would only be as slow as the "breadboard" rev is - I would imagine the cpu is the breadboard and everything else plugs into that. Want a new cpu? get a new breadboard.

The form factor could be addressed by the fact that the actual components could be really thin. Want a ruggedized form factor, just get the Casio G-Shock branded case. Want glass screens front and back? get the fancy dual screen one. Etc.

The radio/modem would be the difficult bit, as well as getting it approved through FCC/ITU/CE/VCCI because it's a de-facto "different device" if you're constantly changing the profile of the modem, battery, display, etc.

I think the thing that will kill it is cost. It's simply cheaper to build a fully integrated device than one that can be updated piecemeal. All those magic little pins cost money to manufacture and assemble.


#16

This is exactly the promise of user built modular PC towers, and in my experience the "modularness" only works within that generation of hardware and software.

Every year I need a newer faster graphics card to play the latest game (or use an updated OS, or use a video rendering program, or add a new capability such as video in), which will require a new mother board, which requires a new processor and new RAM. These new motherboards no longer physically connect with my (now) small and slow hard drives, so those are thrown into external cases at least, but still replaced. All of these new faster components require much more power, so a new power brick is installed. The keyboard and mouse and screen last a while, but have their own timelines. I'm thankful I didn't skimp on the tower case when I first bought it, it is the only thing I have left.


#17

The problem is that you don't hang your keyboard and webcam and mouse off of their own PCI slots. That's pretty much what the phone in the video would have to do because he made a big deal about being able to plug anything in anywhere, and playing Tetris with the components until they all fit.

You could make a phone where the camera is a module and you can replace it. Even the screen if you really pushed it. Batteries are already replacable in many phones. What's difficult is creating some sort of universal jack that you can plug both a webcam and a CPU into without making yourself crazy. Obviously you can't have the interface between the graphics and the CPU to be a USB bus, but you also don't want to plug your mouse directly into a PCIe bus.


#18

A laptop, with its USB connections, illustrates that modularity is possible ... but you pay for that in space and battery and manufacturing cost, because it requires that the system be designed for expected future load rather than designed to be Just Good Enough to meet the needs of its original specs.

Swap the camera? Sure, but then you need more memory... and if you don't want it to take longer to store the image you also need to speed up everything between the camera and memory. Of course you could move all the camera function into the camera block, but then you wind up having to replicate logic and storage (and draw more power).

Actually my own inclination is toward modularity -- but I think I'd rather do that by having dedicated camera and palmtop and phone which each have human factors optimized for their tasks and which can communicate with each other when necessary.


#19

I think, engineering issues aside, that smartphones are also too cheap in absolute terms. For this to work each module has to be available as a separate retail product. A $5 camera as part of a conventional phone is one thing, but a $5 camera module in a box on the shelf is much more challenging.

That problem is less severe with more expensive PC components, but even there it is happening at the lower end of the market.


#20

What is hopefully my next phone, Jolla, takes a simple modular approach. The first iteration is simply different colored backs "the other half" that cause the phone to take on different set-ups and themes (e.g. you could set the red back to have your personal config and the black back to trigger your work config). However, they are hinting at expanded functions such as a slide-out qwerty keyboard.
Your Jolla | Jolla.com
My primary reason for wanting the phone is that it is the offspring of Nokia's linux device/phones OS Maemo/Meego -- I miss my maemo phone.