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Is This the Last Smartphone You’ll Ever Need?

A Dutch designer has come up with a smartphone design that allows every essential function to be easily upgradeable

Designer Dave Hakkens bills Phonebloks, his concept for a new smartphone, as “a phone worth keeping.” Image courtesy of Phonebloks.

Dutch designer Dave Hakkens has a novel idea for a smartphone that can change your life. Yeah, we’ve all heard these kinds of proclamations before, but what really sets his device apart is that it has the potential to be the last one you’ll ever need.

The phone doesn’t tout any radically futuristic features or even specs that are vastly superior to anything else already out on the market. The secret sauce is in the way that Hakkens re-imagines the phone—each important functional component is a separate modular block that can be added to or removed from the device. By allowing the various parts, such as the speakers, camera and processor to be easily swappable, owners can upgrade different features of their phone individually without ever having to purchase a new one. In essence, Hakken’s Phonebloks was conceived to be future-proof.

Hakkens came up with Phonebloks as a way to cut down on the ever-rising pile of non-biodegradable phones and other electronic products consumers are habitually discarding in favor of newer versions. Globally, the problem is referred to as e-waste and statistics complied by the Earth Day Network, a consortium of environment NGOs and activists, show that Americans generate about 50 million tons of e-waste each year and 75 percent of the junk sits in landfills.

But beyond environmental benefits, there are other significant advantages. Consumers would, of course, save money, since they’d no longer feel the need to replace whatever they’re using with a newer, more advanced model every couple of years. They’ll also be able to choose which upgraded features they want without sacrificing other important functions. For instance, some phones may sport a high-end megapixel camera as its strong suit, but may fall short on battery life or vice-versa. In this case, you can opt for upgraded versions of both.

To drum up support, Hakkens listed his Phonebloks idea on the crowdsourcing platform Thunderclap, which unlike Kickstarter, isn’t dedicated to raising funding but rather to spread a message through the backing of the masses. So far, the Phonenbloks project has garnered 889,731 supporters as well as a celebrity endorsement from actor Elijah Wood. But, not too soon after Hakkens injected his idea into the social media sphere, a number of tech experts jumped to question its feasibility.

To Hakkens’ credit, the idea makes a lot of sense, at least in theory. Smartphones are often thought of as powerful handheld computers and enthusiasts have always had the option to upgrade and even build their own PCs. The Phonebloks concept merely applies the same approach and simplifies the complicated process of swapping out parts and particular functions into a simple framework that anyone can put together, like Lego building blocks.

Smartphones, however, are an entirely different animal. For instance, data circulates between various internal components at such a rapid speed that they work best when parts are integrated as much as possible. Open up one of the new models and you’ll find that the graphics, RAM and processor layered right on top of each other in a single chip. Separating these components would, in effect, severely slow down the phone’s systematic workings and drain the battery. John Brownlee of Fast Company’s Co.Design also points out that a modular phone would also mean a much heftier phone since each part would need to be encased and require an expensive built-in socket.

Even the father of the modern cell phone, inventor Martin Cooper, doesn’t see a viable future for Phonebloks. “The main reason that the Phoneblok will not hit the market is it will cost more, be bigger and heavier, and be less reliable,” he told CNN. “By the time it could be brought to market, the problem that engendered it will be gone.”

Yet, despite the onslaught of doubt, Hakkens is focused primarily on the first steps: to show that there’s a real demand for this type of technology.

“I set this up as a vision,” Hakkens told SmartPlanet. “I never had the intention of saying, ‘Next year we’ll launch Phonebloks.’ Because of the level of interest, I now have faith this is possible to set up.”

So while Phonebloks will likely never exist, the seed for such a notion has—at the very least—been planted.

About Tuan C. Nguyen
Tuan C. Nguyen

Tuan C. Nguyen is a Silicon Valley-based journalist specializing in technology, health, design and innovation. His work has appeared in ABCNews.com, NBCNews.com, FoxNews.com, CBS' SmartPlanet and LiveScience.

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