Why Lego Design Principles Don't Work On Smartphones

By now, you might have heard of Phonebloks, a modular smartphone design concept that is taking the Internet by storm. Created by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, Phonebloks proposes a better smartphone that is made up of Lego-like modular components be upgraded individually. According to Hakkens, such a system would decrease electronic waste and cost consumers less money on smartphone upgrades over time.

At best, most of us have a dim understanding of what is going on inside of our smartphones, but the Phonebloks concept breaks out each separate function of our smartphones into its own module. There's something intensely satisfying about this approach: is this not the way we secretly wish all technology worked? And don't we all wish that when a new iPhone comes along that we could simply upgrade the modules that matter, like picking pimentoes out of a sandwich and replacing them with olives?

It's a shame, then, that Phonebloks is a pipe dream, a concept by its creator's own admission is not even achieveable within the next 10 years. "Making Phonebloks a reality is probably impossible with current technologies," Hakkens told Co.Design in an email, but didn't elaborate further. However, it's easy to extrapolate why.

Phonebloks' core concept is that every technology in your smartphone should be capable of being broken out and upgraded as an independent module, similar to the way a PC motherboard works. You should be able to upgrade your display independently of the CPU, independently of the graphics, independently of the RAM, independently of the Bluetooth, and so on. That's a nice idea, but it ignores a bunch of practical problems.

Smartphones Are Integrated For A Reason

Within your smartphone, data whizzes between components at speeds that are nearly impossible to imagine. Every milimeter's distance between these components comes with a speed penalty attached, which is why smartphones tend to put as many components as possible on a single chip. Consider, for example, the iPhone 5S's A7 processor, which has the iPhone's CPU, graphics and RAM clustered together in a sandwich-like wafer.

Breaking this trinity up to allow for modular upgrades wouldn't just make the device run slower, though. It would make your iPhone consume more power and triple its physical footprint. The result would be a bulkier device, or a device with less room for other components (such as a bigger battery). Even if you could live with that, though, Phonebloks would require expensive sockets so that the CPU, graphics, RAM, storage and modem could communicate with one another at high speed.

Phonebloks Would Increase E-Waste, Not Eliminate It

So even at first glance, we can see that a Phonebloks smartphone would be bigger, slower, and more expensive than a regular smartphone. But maybe it's worth it if we're not throwing away our smartphones quite as often because they've become obsolete, right? Unfortunately, no. One of the little illusions the Phonebloks concept pulls off so well is that it fools us into thinking we're seeing a simpler way of designing a smartphone. It's sleight of hand. The reality is that the Phonebloks design is a more complex way of building a smartphone, and there's a lot of things that can go wrong.

How do most smartphones break? They break because of user error: you drop them, or you smash them, or you do something you're not supposed to do with them. The Phonebloks concept would take the human error factor that ruins so many smartphones and multiply it with every module. As users constantly pry modules off, replacing them and switching them around, there's just a million ways a Phonebloks smartphone could break that an integrated smartphone is not susceptible to. Instead of throwing away our smartphones because they were merely obsolete, then, we would throw away our Phonebloks because they were breaking all the time. And because these modules would be bigger than regular smartphone components, we would actually be increasing e-waste, not lessening it.

We don't need to labor the hundred other ways in which Phonebloks is a designer's dream but an engineer's nightmare. Simply put, Phonebloks is the opposite of what it appears. Phonebloks makes an appeal to our love of order and simplicity, while actually being significantly more complex. Phonebloks tells us smartphones can cost less, while making each component within them cost more. Phonebloks says that we can upgrade our smartphones without being wasteful, while making it significantly more likely that we'll have to throw away our phones because they're broken. And so on.

Phonebloks: Not A Prediction Of The Future Of Smartphones

Phonebloks appeals to the many facets of the modern ego-id at once: the part of us that wants the universe to be neatly ordered and precisely aligned, the child within us that wants technology to work more like Legos, the guilt that follows from throwing hundreds of dollars of electronics away every year because they are "obsolete." Phonebloks makes us feel good about technology, not confused, covetous or remorseful. Practicalities aside, it's easy to see why the Phonebloks concept went viral. But the whole point is that practicalities can't be put aside. They need to be dealt with and overcome.

"In the 1960s, Intel's Gordon Moore said that every two years, processor clock speeds would double, and he was right. Later on, he said that Moore's Law wasn't a prediction, but a goal," says Hakkens. According to Hakkens, that's what Phonebloks is: a goal, not a prediction.

And a good thing too. The parameters of goals fluctuate according to the demands reality place upon them, while predictions are usually the domain of cheap fortune-tellers who are depending on some supernatural force to intervene and pull it all off. As a goal, Phonebloks might get us all thinking more seriously about electronic waste and how we go about disposing of our devices. As a prediction, though, it will require magic to make a reality.