20 September 2013

Nerd Rant: The Phoneblok, e-Waste & Smartphones

In under four days, this video whipped up nine million viewers into a smartphone frenzy. No, it's not the latest and greatest iPhone or Android phone, but rather a concept design called Phoneblok. And it's a incredibly dumb idea.

The creator of the Phoneblok concept begins with the video by saying we have a lot of e-waste, or nonchalantly throwing away old phones, laptops, computers, digital cameras--you name it. And in this capacity, he is spot on. We do create a lot of electronics waste when many of these components can be recycled, including some of the ones found inside smartphones. What can we do about it? Rather than pumping better advertising into buy-back and recycling programs or building better quality phones, he instead wants to create yet another phone for the market that allows users to Lego-fy what they want to the device.

Your camera, battery, and every other component of your smartphone can be molded into a individual block and pressed into place on this phone. Customize it! Only update one aspect of your phone! Lego phone! Except, this isn't how hardware--especially in phones--works. It all has to work together to make the end result, and if these things are being constantly switched or swapped out, it's going to be an engineering and hardware nightmare. The groan of engineers could be heard across the world when this video started getting popular. Or maybe that's just the groan of engineers on Reddit.

There is a slim potential that it could work in some capacity and this article on Tested.com says it best. A little excerpt:
"Separating each and every component out into a replaceable module is likely impractical, but the Phonebloks idea could still work. Some chips would likely still be integrated into the motherboard, which would be replaceable (and cheap compared to the boards of most phones, since key components like the system-on-a-chip would be separated). Others would probably be bundled into modules containing multiple chips, like an accelerometer/gyroscope/magnetometer package."
Of course, there is a similar concept on Instructables and there are modular types of technology out there beyond the DIY desktop computer. Except, with the Instructables one, you need to have knowledge on how to build on a breadboard and program an Arduino, and even then, the end result is not a sleek iPhone looking device but rather a 1980s brick phone with crappy interfacing. Not exactly sexy technology for most users.

And speaking of engineers and Reddit, r/engineering has an interesting post that outlines seventeen different reasons why the Phoneblok still needs some fine tuning before it's even possibly doable for a mass market. You can check out the discussion here.

Another problem is that the competition for smartphones is somethin' fierce. I don't think a word-of-mouth compaign to start a Kickstarter can face the tidal wave of money from the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, or even Samsung to make sure this project doesn't become reality. Unfortunately, it's just better business for these companies to create "throwaway phones" that can be easily replaced rather than deeply customized.

So, what can we do as responsible smartphone owners in the meantime? There are a couple of things:
  • Find out what kind of buy-back and recycling programs there are for your smartphone. For example, I have an iPhone and I can take my older model to be reused by Apple or use their newly introduced buy-back program.
  • Places like Gazelle.com are a type of buy-back program where they will recycle the parts in the phone or resell the phone altogether. And the best part? Depending on the demand, you can normally get more money out of Gazelle compared to buy-back programs directly from Apple, Samsung, or Google.
  • Ask yourself honestly: do you really need to have a new phone every two years, let alone every year? While peer pressure can be very real, you don't always need the newest phone if your current one works just perfectly fine.
  • There are certain aspects of a phone that can be repaired by a technician. If you own an iPhone, for example, there are in-store technicians (known as a Family Room Specialist) who can help you out. There are also independent repair stores popping up everywhere and can be cheaper than buying a brand new phone altogether.
Perhaps one day we won't have as much e-waste and just piles of perfectly good smartphones being thrown out because they are last year's model. And maybe the thought of a Phoneblok can help trigger something that is actually doable in the real world. Who knows what the future holds, but just remember that not all concept videos are completely feasible.

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