Imagine you could have a smartphone that is COMPLETELY customizable to your wishes, both functionally and aesthetically. Also imagine it easy to fix when broken. And easy to upgrade when technology advances, or when your needs change. Imagine a phone worth keeping instead of ending up at an African e-waste landfill – poisoning the land and the people – only 2 or 3 years after you bought it. Imagine a phone both cool and right. Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t! Read here why not.
The story of electronics: designed for the dump
A year ago I loved my new smartphone. All new and shiny. But recently it is letting me down. It’s little things that are breaking down but it is annoying. It seems near to impossible to have it fixed. I still like my phone but I want one that works properly. I start dreaming about a new one. What will happen to my old phone? It will be eating dust for a while at a shelf. After a year or two , when cleaning up, I will discover it and laugh. So outdated now! I put it in a box together with other outdated electronic devices and throw it away at a waste management facility. Then I forget about it. But ‘away’ doesn’t really exist. Away more often means being dumped in Africa or Asia. Polluting land and intoxicating people that search e-waste for valuable materials.
It’s the economy, stupid!
Pretty doom and gloom isn’t it? Yes it is. And stupid too. But we can’t help it, technology changes at an ever faster pace, right? No. It’s the economy stupid. Selling more phones, means growth and growth means success. Planned obsolescence is an integral part of this success. The short animation ‘The Story of Electronics’ explains this perfectly.
Both simple and genius
But don’t despair just yet! Smartphones, one of the most empowering objects of our times, are about to experience a revolution. It is no such thing as a better camera or thinner model. It is an innovation that will disrupt the status quo and will change all of our lives – also those in Africa – for the better. It is a simple yet genius answer to solving the problem of smartphones having such a ridiculously short lifespan.
A modular smartphone: designed to last
The answer is modularity. Say what? Imagine you could have a smartphone that is COMPLETELY customizable to your wishes, both functionally and aesthetically. Imagine you can, for example, pick the camera you want for your phone rather than picking your phone for the camera. Or a longer lasting battery or a better speaker. Imagine it buy-as-you-need (or as you can afford). Also imagine it easy to fix when broken. And easy to upgrade when technology advances or when your needs change. Imagine a phone worth keeping instead of ending up at an African e-waste landfill only 2 or 3 years after you bought it. Sounds pretty attractive doesn’t it?
Well, it’s about to be within reach. At Google a small team, under the name of Project Ara, is working really hard on bringing a modular smartphone to life. And they are already about to start pilot testing in Puerto Rico later this year. See this short video (50 seconds) to get a taste of it.
Plug and play
So how does it work? Project Ara is a development effort to create a modular hardware ecosystem. It may sound difficult but it is actually very simple to understand. It all starts with what they call an endoskeleton, or easier a motherboard, the structural frame and data backbone of the device. You can populate the motherboard with “modules,” the building blocks that make up the vast majority of the phone’s functionality and features (camera, speaker, battery and lots more). It is like apps but then with hardware; plug and play. The modules also have user-replaceable covers or “shells,” which provide a creative canvas for users to make their phone look exactly as they wish. Ultimately, you will be able to buy a complete Ara phone, configure one from scratch, or buy additional modules through the Ara Module Marketplace.
But Google isn’t the only one working on this idea. Puzzlephone, with three replaceable and customizable modules (so-called ‘heart’, ‘spine’ and ‘brain’), is being designed in Finland right now.
Do people actually want a modular smartphone?
When back in 2013 Dutch designer Dave Hakkens put his Phonebloks video online – explaining his vision on how consumer electronics could be designed in such a way that would make them easier to repair and easy to upgrade using modular design – it had over 1,000,000 views within the first 24 hours after publication.
When he set up a Thunderclap campaign to promote the Phonebloks idea later that year over 979,253 supporters send out the message on social media, reaching over 380,000,000 people. It is probably safe to say there is a demand for modular smartphones. And I know for sure I can’t wait till it’s here!