The Unrealized Potential of Phonebloks


With a whopping value of around 400 billion dollars, the smartphone industry has never been as ubiquitous as it is now. Who would have thought that the little device known as the iPhone would end up changing the world in such a seismic manner? When it was introduced, the iPhone was perceived as nothing more than a fad. A flash in the pan. Many forecasters and consumers were still glued to the likes of Blackberry and Nokias, and saw the inclusion of a touch screen on a mobile phone as a gimmick that would fade in a few years’ time. However, it managed to survive those initial doubts and now, the touch screen is a necessary component of the mobile phone in itself. 

Apple, however, is solely not the player in the game anymore. We have the likes of Korea’s Samsung and various Chinese brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi. The land of the smartphone now contains a very sizable group of brands aimed at various markets offering phones at various price points. The smartphone has become more than just a communication device, but an all-in-one tool that can improve the quality of life. 

Unfortunately, with all of the comfortability smartphones can provide along with its abundance of purchasable units comes the elephant in the room – e-waste. As said in the International Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) forum, more than 5 billion mobile phones will be thrown away this year. This makes it very harmful for the environment and it can cause irreparable damage in the years to come, and there is no sign of the gradual uptick of e-waste stopping anytime soon.

With this startling fact and with the threat of e-waste not as prominent back then, nearly a decade prior there was a concept that existed to mitigate things. Enter the grand idea that is Phonebloks. 

The brainchild of Dutch designer Dave Hakkins, Phonebloks not only sought out to solve the e-waste but also provide the user with an unparalleled degree of customization never before seen with a smartphone. The ingenious usage of the titular “bloks” meant that a user could tailor the look and feel of their smartphone all to themselves. At the same time, this would mean that less units would be thrown away just because a single part of the phone was not working properly. For example, if a Phoneblok’s camera wasn’t working, the owner would just easily swap that part out for another one

This idea spawned a social media movement as Phonebloks became the talk of the town. However, things never made it past this stage as it was hard to convince third-party developers – the backbone of Hakkins’ concept – to join in on the fun. The idea was to have all the major developers contribute their own bloks in the Blokstore, a place (both online and physical) where one could buy said bloks and also sell their own, too. Users could theoretically have a Frankenstein’s monster of a Phoneblok with all the best parts from all the various developers, but what was the use if said developers would just be competing with themselves in an overcrowded market anyway? 

The ironic part in all of this is that some critics argued that the Phonebloks, if they were made into a reality, could have even contributed to more e-waste. The idea of frequently replacing your bloks rather than getting a new phone altogether every couple of years was definitely a cause for concern. 

Eventually, Hakkins took his Phonebloks concept and turned it into a more practical approach under the watchful eye of Google and Motorola as Project Ara. However, this too did not get off the ground and was cancelled in 2016, three years after the Phonebloks’ conception. 

Was Phonebloks simply too good to be true? Maybe the world wasn’t ready for them just yet, or maybe it was just a concept that was too much trouble than it was worth. Whatever the case may be, it can’t be denied that Phonebloks was conceptualized thanks to more noble intentions than most. Maybe someday, we’d find out that Phonebloks crawled so that a more modern concept could run.

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