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On modularity and creativity in smartphone technology

On modularity and creativity in smartphone technology

Several people have shared a short promotional video with us over the past few days which describes an innovative project called Phonebloks. The idea behind Dutch designer Dave Hakkens' new electronic device concept is one of total modularity, where users can replace only the parts that have failed or that they wish to upgrade instead of replacing the entire smartphone. The video, which was shared by mass media throughout the world (especially the likes of Buzzfeed and Huffington Post who were trying to surf the wave to draw clicks to themselves), has gained nearly 10M views in just 4 days. 


Behind the Phonebloks concept is the desire of many to see the market move towards adaptability and mass customization. The current contest between Samsung and Apple leaves all users dissatisfied : with too little hardware options on iPhones, yet too little reliability and compatibility, as well as poor aesthetics and limited software options from the Korean company's leading Galaxy products. 


We need dreamers such as Hakkens to define the future, yet the immediacy with which the video concludes and calls to action makes one wonder what stands behind the fancy video and its stunning virality. In "Why Lego Design Principles Don't Work On Smartphones", Fast Company's technology writer John Brownlee the Phonebloks concept is not only impossible, but it doesn't achieve the objectives it says it should. 


Some commentators even wonder whether this isn't simply a well-crafted marketing stunt to drive attention to other products and services (though the domain has been completely overrun by the Phonebloks initiative and it is nearly impossible to find any information about the man). 


As per Brownlee's FastCo article, current phones are designed to maximize the (microscopic) geography of components in order to accelerate their speeds and reduce energy consumption, notably so that small batteries will last longer. With hypermodularity such as the one depicted in the Phonebloks video, some co-evolutive parts would become distanced by several millimetres, or more, centimeters - which in the world of electrons is a distance of infinite proportions -, creating the need for larger and more energy consuming parts overall. As a matter of fact, writes Brownlee, there is no reason to believe that the components of Phonebloks would break or need to be replaced less often than regular phones. As there are no reasons to believe that each part would last inherently longer, writes Brownlee, the Phonebloks' components "would be bigger than regular smartphone components, [and so] we would actually be increasing e-waste, not lessening it."


In the end, such Lego-like concepts are "a designer's dream but an engineer's nightmare". They are needed to push technology forward, to smoothen our ability to connect with machines and with one another (the topic of the September CreativeMornings/Montréal talk, by the way), and to organize the field of science fiction towards common, yet far-off and distant goals. A more realistic and impacting field for evolution, which has seen a massive increase in recent years, is that of software. Though certainly less radically innovative, projects such as the University of Toronto's crowdfunded Minuum keyboard project optimize screen size in ways that do not interfere with the electronic engineering principles, yet allow us to draw better performance using the same device. 


Do more with what we have, or transform an industry by radical change? Who are we to say? All we can do is support both, and know that together we will find solutions to better use our scarce resources. 


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