When a Dutch design student unveiled a concept for a fully modular phone in 2013, his goal was to eliminate waste. By turning every component into a tiny removable block, he reasoned, it would be possible to easily repair or upgrade phones that would have been quickly trashed in the past.
The idea, called Phonebloks, was later wrapped into Google's Project Ara—though Google's take on it focused more on swappable parts than longevity. Then came the news that Google was cancelling plans to make the phone, leading to questions about whether modular phones have a real future—and whether those phones can help solve the ballooning problem of e-waste.
"For phones, modularity may seem like a good idea, but in reality, I think it is ultimately not making devices more sustainable," says product designer Mike Simonian, co-founder of Mike and Maaike, who previously helped Google build an industrial design team. "It may allow people to upgrade rather than buying a new device but this will only delay a complete upgrade, as the entire system will pretty quickly become outdated."
The Project Ara phone, a frame with parts that could be added and removed, was designed to let users add features like a camera or extra speaker as needed or customize at the store. "Sustainability is in there, but I don't think it's the key focus," says Josh Morenstein, founder and creative director of Branch Creative, which worked on the Ara design. "It is possible. You're still getting rid of a lot of the product every time you swap out a component, though."
If a new display comes out, for example, you're still getting rid of the old display. In some cases, especially because the electronics on phones are so integrated now, making parts modular might mean more materials are used in manufacturing up-front, and again for each part that's replaced.
"Imagine it's like Legos," says Morenstein. "Every Lego block has six sides to it. So when you replace that Lego block and put another block on there, you're still getting rid of a block. That Lego block has all this plastic around it, it has microchips in it, depending what it is . . . in a way, there's more materials on this modular architecture than there is on a standard phone."
PuzzlePhone, a Finland-based modular phone project, argues that if someone replaces one of its parts, someone else can reuse it. The phone is designed with removable parts—a "brain" with electronic guts, a frame with a high-res display, and a "heart" with a battery and more electronics. The electronics and screen are designed to last 10 years and the battery, three years.
"Many users will only seek more processing power, a fresh battery or to repair their screen once every 10 years, and these cases do not happen at same time, so you can replace only that bit, and you still have a valuable module in your pocket—unless broken—that someone else can use," says Alejandro Santacreu, CEO and founder of Circular Devices OY, the company making the PuzzlePhone.
It's a noble idea, and there's no reason why a screen and a battery, at least, shouldn't be easily replaceable by users rather than by a manufacturer. FairPhone, a social good-minded Dutch company, also uses modularity to make its phone more repairable. But it's unclear how well a phone that lasts a decade will do on the mainstream market. Some of the product churn is driven by manufacturers through planned obsolescence. But to some extent, it comes from consumer demand for improving technology as well.
"Every year, new processors come out and the rest of the components of a phone need to work well with that processor," says Simonian. "All of these other components are constantly being improved as well. So if you upgrade one part of a phone, the rest of it will quickly become outdated. Technology in phones changes more rapidly than almost any other product category so I don't think a phone would ever be a BIFL item."
Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, a site that helps people learn to repair their own electronics, thinks that the secondary market solves the problem, at least in part, by itself. "Everyone wants to make their phone last 10 years," he says. "But why? The free market provides modularity. If you want a better camera, just sell your phone to someone who needs it and buy a new one with a better camera. The more important thing is that your old phone stays in use by someone and is repaired when it breaks."
An alternative approach to making phones more sustainable could be to focus on making them much easier to disassemble and recycle. "I think when we're able to design consumer electronics where we can take all of the elements and essentially melt them down and turn them into something else or make a new phone, I think that's where it starts to become more magical," says Morenstein. "Things are changing so fast through these product cycles and what you can do that it almost doesn’t make sense to say we can sell your phone and somebody else can use it."
In the meantime, PuzzlePhone is still working to bring its modular phone to market and plans to prove that it can work. Though some expected European Commission funding was delayed, it expects to have a prototype in six months. It argues that typical phones—which it compares to cars with parts glued together, so that you'd have to throw out the whole car if one part breaks—are designed for manufacturers to be able to sell more.
Dave Hakkens, the designer who originally proposed Phonebloks, thinks that might be true. "For me, that's never really a reason not to chase the thing that is good," he says. "Then I guess it's a case of finding a way to make that profit without making that much waste."
Hakkens also expects the fledging industry of modular phones to keep growing. "I still believe that a lot of people want it and it makes sense," he says. "Slowly you see more companies and initiatives doing more modular stuff. Step by step. I definitely think there's more room for modularity in the future."
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.