Worldwide, more than 1.8 billion mobile phones were sold last year—most replacing devices that were less than two years old. The average smartphone owner upgrades every 18 months.
Is it possible to design a phone that people actually want to keep? The latest attempt is the Puzzlephone, a modular Android device with three parts that can easily be customized, replaced or upgraded: A "brain" with the main electronics, a "heart" with the battery, and a "spine" with an LCD screen. If the camera or battery stops working—or if you want to switch to a different operating system—you can just swap in a new part instead of buying an entirely new phone.
The phone is meant to last 10 years. "The main goal is to have a device that will be more sustainable in terms of life cycle and environmental footprint," says Alejandro Santacreu, CEO of Circular Devices, the Finland-based company developing the phone. If a typical smartphone has a carbon footprint of 50 kilograms during production, manufacturers are emitting around 90 million tons of CO2 just to make new phones each year.
While some consumers might still be tempted to get a new device even if a phone is fully upgradable, the designers believe that the biggest reason people upgrade now is that they don't have other options.
"Shiny-shiny will remain as bait, but not for everyone," says Santacreu. "Once processing power and broadband become commodities, the 'need ' to move to something new because your device is obsolete will be there no more. Now there are no options but to change the full car when the tires are worn out. That's a complete senseless waste that only benefits a few."
There are challenges to designing a modular phone. "From the conceptual side, the challenge is being modular but not too much," Santacreu says. "As users we want something configurable and adaptable but not a Lego box to assemble. From the hardware point of view, connections. Having something compact, reliable and useful in a convenient package is a real challenge."
Still, the team is getting close to being production-ready, and plans to start shipping the phones by the end of next year—perhaps even before Project Ara, Google's attempt at a similar modular phone.
There's one other challenge to longevity: Is it possible that we won't even use mobile phones at all in 10 years? "It's definitely possible," says Santacreu. "Mobile technology is quite mature now and will remain for a while with further improvements. Everyone will need someway to communicate across the world. But that communication may not even be with what we know as voice or data."