In this new age of mobile phones, many of us suffer from “Shiny Object” syndrome — where we always want the latest and greatest toy Apple, Samsung or one of the other multitude of manufacturers can think up. Most of the more than 1.8 billion mobile phones sold worldwide in 2013 replaced devices that were less than two years old. Nearly a billion of these devices were smartphones.
Mobile phone manufacturers have made their billions promoting and taking advantage of our collective technophilia. But Shiny Object syndrome only accounts for part of the equation — the balance belonging to planned obsolescence. Mobile phones — and smartphones in particular — have been designed as a one-off capture of the latest technology available at the time of manufacture. In other words — the only way to “upgrade” a phone is to replace it.
The modular approach
But what if you could actually “upgrade” a phone — adding or replacing components to improve the device without needing to dispose of the entire unit?
That is the aim of the Puzzlephone, a new modular Android device with three parts that can easily be customized, replaced or upgraded. It features a "brain" with the main electronics, a "heart" with the battery and a "spine" with an LCD screen. If, say, the battery or camera stops working — or you want to upgrade to a better operating system — you can switch in a new part rather than buying an entirely new phone. The phone is designed to last 10 years and have a significantly reduced life cycle and environmental footprint.
Some conceptual challenges facing the Puzzlephone include finding the best balance of modular and non-modular components. Consumers may be averse to a phone that is too configurable. From a hardware perspective, there are challenges in developing something compact, reliable and useful in a convenient package.
Similarly, a company called Phonebloks is working on how to divide the structure of smartphones into separate modules, or Bloks, designed for easy disassembly. The primary benefit is being able to detach faulty components and have them repaired or replaced without having to toss the entire phone. Phonebloks wants to both revolutionize the mobile phone industry with long-lasting phones and create them on an open platform, through a collaborative effort between as many phone companies as want to take part.
An interactive section of the Phonebloks website is focused on Project Ara, an initiative to create a module-based phone. By registering on the site, users can share ideas, join discussions, give feedback and respond to regularly posted challenges for which the Project Ara team will choose the best solution.
Project Ara hopes to “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.” What started as a Motorola-sponsored initiative fell under the Google brand after the search giant’s sale of Motorola to Lenovo last year.
Phonebloks now maintains an independent relationship with Google — the tech giant provides insight into its project and Phonebloks, through its community, gives input. Phonebloks says it supports all modular initiatives, especially those embracing open-source, open innovation and all under a circular economy.
Phonebloks' Tomas Halberstad recently told Sustainable Brands that the highlight of 2014 was its partnership with Sennheiser, which used the power of the Phonebloks community and movement while developing a sound-blok for Project Ara. Other exciting developments of last year include growing its community and the awareness of electronic waste, as well as receiving a Designs of the Year Award.
Building a more ethical phone
There are also questions of ethics afflicting the mobile phone industry — most notably the unscrupulous acquisition of rare earth minerals, or “conflict minerals.” A Netherlands-based social enterprise called Fairphone is developing a smartphone that uses commercial strategies to maximize positive social impact at every stage of the value chain, from sourcing and production to distribution and recycling. Fairphone started in 2010 as a project of Waag Society, Action Aid and Schrijf-Schrijf to raise awareness about conflict minerals in consumer electronics and the wars that the mining of these minerals is fueling in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As smartphones become ubiquitous and information communication technologies continue to pervade the farthest reaches of the world, the need to address accompanying environmental and social sustainability concerns associated with our devices is becoming increasingly evident — and electronics giants would do well to follow the lead of these forward-thinking companies.