The transformation in the mobile industry in the past eight years has been truly extraordinary. Phones have evolved from tools for simple telecommunications to mobile computing powerhouses. Mobile phone brands pride themselves on their commitment to continually to improve on their products; they manage to make their products slimmer, sleeker and faster year after year. And almost just as miraculously, demand in the mobile phone industry remains strong despite near market saturation in developed nations.
A part of the answer lies in the seamless design ethic championed by Apple, now commonplace in the mobile computing industry. A seamless design is the principle of construction through the use of inseparable components. This allows manufacturers to consolidate space, but it has also made upgrading or replacing phone components essentially impossible. This combined with continual product releases and the intermingling of our technology with our social consciousness has created consumerism with high rates of turnover and thus, large profit margins in the industry.
This is a model that has rewarded us with incredible innovation; but, of course, nothing is free and iPhones are certainly no exception. Upgrade after upgrade we replace components that were never defective to begin with. As a result, instead of just serving an existing need, mobile technology has evolved to become a public display of our consumerism. This is the cost we see, but there is an even larger one lurking behind: The world is already mobile; this year, 1.8 billion smartphones this year replaced the 1.5 billion phones discarded. That’s 1.8 billion phones worth of gold, chlorine and mercury that have to be mined out of the ground. And because much of our electronic waste is not recycled and/or unrecoverable, much of that material not only goes to waste but goes on to degrade our environment and impoverished communities decades after that phone was thrown out. This the real hidden cost of our 200 dollar contracts that we never see directly but we’re paying for dearly.
When presented with this information, the consumer is left with a difficult situation where we feel compelled to take part of a technological resonance that we know is fundamentally unsustainable. But this was not an inevitable choice, and Dave Hakkens, a mobile phone visionary, is a man who believes that it is indeed time to separate our technology from our consumerism. His vision is embodied in his project: The Blockphone. A fundamental aspect of this vision is the development of standards for mobile components (such as processors, battery packs, cameras etc.) into discrete physical modules or “blocks” that can be interchanged between phones.
The beauty of such a system is that components can be upgraded or replaced when the consumer needs them to be upgraded, without having the entire phone to be discarded. Functioning components, which could then be separated from defective ones, can be resold and reused. Dave’s foundation has been a source of intrigue for concerned citizens, but his recent partnership with Google’s Motorola may now give it the chance to reach commercial viability.
Google develops the operating system, Android. As an open source operating system, Android now holds the largest piece of mobile OS market share. Two years ago Google acquired Motorola Mobility, a smartphone manufacturer and maker of once iconic phones as the Motorola Razr. For the past year, Google and Motorola have also been pursuing an open hardware development platform to parallel their software development. Through Motorola’s hardware prowess together with the vision of Dave Hekken’s block phone, the two have launched “Project Ara”.
The project will allow third party manufacturers to design individual components that can be fit together like building blocks on top of Motorola’s central endoskeleton, which contains the necessary circuitry to connect the individual components. The result is an infinitely customizable device. By using a modular block design Motorola has given manufacturers the power to create a variety of hardware components to satisfy almost any need. Consumers can purchase the components that best serve their individual needs, and replace components on an individual as opposed to mass market basis. Processors, Cameras, Battery Packs can be swapped in and out at the will of the consumer without sacrificing functioning components.
Project Ara does not compete with iPhone in the way other handsets from Samsung, HTC, and even Motorolla itself do. The concept is that the block phone is not intended to be sleeker, lighter, faster, or convenient than these phones; it represents a complete redirection from current trends in the mobile technology industry. It aims to give choice and sustainability back to the consumer, and that’s why it deserves our attention.