Bigger than a breadboard
September 10, 2013 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Phonebloks suggests a different way for dealing with obsolescent hardware, through modular design on a common base
posted by Blazecock Pileon (53 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is super cool. Much as I love the Apple approach of integrating everything and ending up with a superchunk – now in colors! – I think that modular design is pretty much always excellent. Here's hoping this takes off.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:14 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Is every one of those holes supposed to be like a USB connection and the breadboard is supposed to just know that you put a speaker where you used to have a battery and just do the right thing? That's where he lost me.

Replaceable parts with standardized interfaces, sure. Would the complexity required to make you able to stick any function you want in any location be worth it?
posted by ctmf at 10:15 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is there a non-video description of this? Because as someone who knows how phones are engineered, this looks pretty...unlikely. Like an "artist's conception" rather than a thing that would be reasonable to make.
posted by ryanrs at 10:16 PM on September 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

The phonebloks homepage doesn't inspire confidence either.
posted by ryanrs at 10:19 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think this is a real product you can buy, no. But one could imagine this approach being technically realistic with another 5-10 years of miniaturization. As to whether any tech company would want to agree to take part in this, that seems improbable. As a general idea, though, it seems to be fun to imagine what could be.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:22 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess the breadboard could just be like a local ethernet, and then every component would have to implement it's own network stack to talk to each other. Seems inefficient.
posted by ctmf at 10:24 PM on September 10, 2013

Looks cool, like many other completely impractical suggestions by designers.
posted by pompomtom at 10:32 PM on September 10, 2013 [22 favorites]

Is it really that impractical? I mean, it's essentially like card slots in a PC. One of the blocks is going to be the actual processor(s) and related stuff. You could, say, have a special pin or set of pins in one of the corners, and the block with the processor has to occupy that spot, though it might vary in size.

The pin sockets would each be independently connected to that processor socket, and could even have more than one pickup in each. So you plug something in, four pins with eight pickups is 32 distinct channels into the special processor socket.

I'm sure there's lots wrong with what I just wrote, but the idea this could never work seems to lack imagination.
posted by maxwelton at 10:53 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey - I remembered when I thought this was a great idea for game consoles.

Yeah - it didn't happen either.

Not that I don't think this is a cool idea. It really is. Just - good luck getting everyone to play nice in the modern world of Capitalism.
posted by symbioid at 10:57 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's super impractical. Ridiculous even.

The various building blocks of a phone are all integrated onto a single System on a Chip. It's not like there's a bunch of separate processors each individually assigned to a specific, logical area of functionality. The radio is going to be separate because those chips require a different manufacturing process. Same with the DRAM and FLASH. Pretty much everything else is crammed onto a single piece of silicon.

So you have one smart processor connected to a bunch of I/O devices, each with its own fairly simple, application-specific interface wiring. The interface to the screen is very different from the interface to the touchpad, which is very different from the interface to the microphones.

If you want to hang all these different parts off a single kind of generic connection, then each module will need a pretty decent processor to translate between the generic interconnect and device-specific interface for the screen, audio, or what have you. So now you have 8 processors instead of one. The result will be much larger, much more power-hungry, and a lot more expensive.
posted by ryanrs at 10:58 PM on September 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

I mean, it's essentially like card slots in a PC.

This project is like taking functionality that has recently been integrated onto the motherboard and breaking it out into separate cards like we had in the bad old days. Do you really want separate sound cards, disk controller cards, ethernet cards, etc? Why? For the most part, these functions have been integrated onto motherboards now. The result is smaller, cheaper PCs.
posted by ryanrs at 11:06 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems like a good way to make phones bigger and slower and more expensive. Of course it'll work--it worked 35 years ago when home computers were built this way. But it's not better than what we've got. (On preview I see ryanrs has saved me having to finish this paragraph.)

Also he's cheating a bit with his nicely packed arrangements where all the components fit together into perfect rectangles--a real person who's incrementally changing things is going to face fragmentation issues. The less free space in your current arrangement, the more likely you are to find that your next desired upgrade can't fit on your baseboard with everything else.

What I love most about this video is the little arrow that says "full HD". Wow!
posted by equalpants at 11:06 PM on September 10, 2013

Don't forget that since there isn't a single case wrapped around it, all the little bits have to be individually shielded to pass FCC testing. Good luck with that.
posted by ryanrs at 11:09 PM on September 10, 2013

iPhone 5 teardown. Look at how densely the components are packed. What incredible engineering. You want to split it apart into a bunch of fat lego bricks? Fuck you.
posted by ryanrs at 11:13 PM on September 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

(why yes, I do have strong feelings regarding product engineering)
posted by ryanrs at 11:14 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

As someone who used to work in embedded systems: No. Just no.
posted by Joe Chip at 11:21 PM on September 10, 2013

Reddit thread shitting on this idea.
posted by ryanrs at 11:25 PM on September 10, 2013

Ridiculous. Totally ignores the entire concept of 'integrated' circuitry, (and the entire history of solid state electronics) where you start with a chip, modified with a bunch of jazz, and then after, and only after you sell a million or so of those does it become feasible to 'integrate' all that into one chip...lather, rinse, repeat. With this plan, the interconnecting pins themselves start to quickly grow out of scale when you consider that all the other components are constantly becoming smaller.
The much cooler plan that involves all the folks in the video (designers, manufacturers, etc) is the one where all the devices (not just phones) connect to each other (as opposed to a centralized cellular network), making the carriers themselves obsolete. Will this happen anytime soon? Not bloody likely, but a boy can dream. ..
posted by sexyrobot at 11:33 PM on September 10, 2013

I love this idea and I know nothing of electronics except that I have a basement full that dates from the mid seventies. Interchangeability never wins as far as subcomponents go except for manufacturers.

People shop by brand. Also Pepsi sucks.
posted by vapidave at 11:34 PM on September 10, 2013

Philosophically I love the hell out of this idea, but yeah, I'm not a hardware guy and can worry about obstacles here. For one thing, with all those seams between and underneath components, I'm going to worry when it rains or, for that matter, I get really sweaty.
posted by middleclasstool at 11:36 PM on September 10, 2013

A naieve concept by a design student, very well presented.
The driver behind the concept is reduction of environmental impact, but it's dubious that it would deliver even that.
posted by Drew Glass at 12:04 AM on September 11, 2013

The biggest part of a phone is the screen, and screens are constantly improving too. You're going to have to replace that too. The new form factor is going to require a new shell. I'm suddenly reminded of the guy who still uses his grandfather's axe; he and his father have replaced the handle four times and the head twice, but it's the same axe...right?
posted by Fnarf at 1:05 AM on September 11, 2013

I miss my Tamagotchi.
posted by Quilford at 1:26 AM on September 11, 2013

If you want to have fun making a common product modular, work on cars, because when automatic cars take off you are going to have millions of people tired of looking out the window on the same daily commute, all sitting there looking at their dashboards and wondering what to do next.

Work out a safety-approved modular system that won't interfere with airbags or the drive train or anything else essential to car integrity, maybe all running off a separate electrical system so you can overload or short out your fun system without bringing down the car in the middle of a busy bridge.

Then, in addition to the media and game system, your car has (this week) a coffee grinder, coffee maker, refrigerator, ice machine, waffle iron, soldering iron, sewing machine, lathe, and band saw. Next week, you pop out a few old modules and pop in a few new ones, and suddenly you're making smoothies and working on a weight machine.
posted by pracowity at 1:38 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard! Most cars don't have near enough outfeed space for a band saw!!!!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:15 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ideas are cheap, and for the most part, worth it.

There are some issues. Fortunately for this aspiring "engineer", they are only technical, performance, economic and regulatory.

Connectors are the primary cause of failures. This will involve dozens of new ones.

Besides, what the fine man apparently fails to realize is that the phones are pretty modular on the circuit board level already. The interconnect, layout, physics of chip/module interaction vary because the functional characteristics of the modules changes.

Electronics aren't Lego. The idea, such as it is, explores new territory in obvious and sophomoric. If one is dealing with a huge box, like a desktop, it's one thing. For a mobile, power miserly, combination of art and physics like a smartphone of ANY type, things are a little different.

He might as well sell boxes of oil paint and sheets of canvas and tell us now we can all have modular Van Gogh's. Great idea. Not.
posted by FauxScot at 5:12 AM on September 11, 2013

In this pile-on, what can I add but: square corners? Ouch.
posted by rikschell at 5:46 AM on September 11, 2013

I think this is the dumbest idea I have seen, but then I am one of those people that rides his phone into the ground. I'm sporting an iPhone 4 right now, and it's my "new" phone.

Like someone pointed out, you are still going to throw these phones away. You are just going to do it a part at a time.

He misses a lot of what drives people to buy phones. There's some hand waving at "We'll get people to write an OS that everyone will love," and "You can buy the brand of camera you like." So my phone ends up looking like a NASCAR car? Sony camera! Apple battery! Google accelerometer!

I'll pass. When something on my phone dies I don't throw it out. I get it repaired.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:04 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, like cjorgensen said, the other way to fix the e-waste problem is to use your phone for more than 6 months.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:22 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

How lovely. I would be happy if I could just easily replace the battery in smart phones and tablets to avoid the built in obsolescence.
posted by BenPens at 6:30 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Imagine a beowulf cluster of these.

If only it ran linux.

posted by gauche at 6:38 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The other big problem right now is that the mobile industry is in the process of ginormously exploding. The evolution of a phone over the course of a year or two is such that by the end of a couple phone updates, I find it hard to run the applications which've been written for the most modern iteration.

I've used the same laptop since early 2008, and while it's showing its signs of age I'm still comfortable using it because computer software hasn't evolved too crazily in half a decade. But in that same half a decade, phones have transformed radically. The hardware has evolved like mad, and a lot of innovative software has sprung up to take advantage of that. Each new phone iteration means a whole new wave of programs that rely on relatively cutting-edge software.

That frenzy will die down slash is already starting to die down. But for the time being, the difference between a two-year-old phone and a today phone is fairly significant.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:00 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Of course, parts of this idea will have to be scrapped. But this thread will be a lot more interesting if someone tries to figure out whether there's anything useful here.

Addressing the problem of waste is a worthy goal. The nice-to-have of customization introduces a lot of problems, though.

Without arbitrary customization, there's no need for the base to have a uniform grid of connectors. The connectors can be asymmetrically designed and specific to each type of device if necessary; this helps avoid Murphy's original law.

There's also no need for the modules to be exposed to the air or have their own FCC-compliant shielding. Put the whole thing in a case that can be opened.

If you want this idea to work, the particular division of functionality into modules should be driven by isolating whatever tends to fail (and "not being able to compete with other options" is a kind of failure here). The idea of modularizing functionality to isolate failures and reduce waste is dependent on whether the distribution of points of failure is amenable to this- why are phones discarded?
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 7:24 AM on September 11, 2013

I am outraged that someone would air such an idea outside the confines of their fetid little Shame Journal. I quiver.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 7:42 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I flagged this as "violates the guidelines" because the thunderclap page looked a lot like a fundraiser page, but I see it's not gathering money, just getting the right to spam social media from a bunch of "supporters". So, maybe it was a bad flag on my part, and if so, sorry.
posted by jepler at 7:43 AM on September 11, 2013

Even if this was totally possible, I suspect it would fail at its main goal because people who get the latest phone every six months probably don't do it because the processor is a bit faster.

I wouldn't be surprised if some smart mefites could come up with more feasible suggestions once the pile on calms down, but for now I have to admit it's pretty delicious. Ideas are great, but there seems to be one of these things from a designer every other week, and the amount of smug hubris is almost physically violent.
posted by lucidium at 7:50 AM on September 11, 2013

I've had the same phone for over five years now, and it has never needed a repair. No, it doesn't take or even display pictures. But the battery is replaceable if there were ever a need to replace the battery. And charge can last a week depending on how often I get phone calls.

I think if people just realized they wanted two different things: a pocket sized computer and a telephone, they could avoid a bunch of frustration by letting them be two separate things. And there are a few of us who only need one and don't really want the other anyway.
posted by idiopath at 7:54 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like in reality the phone would end up looking like it was made of Tinkerforge bricks because of the previously-mentioned extra components that need to be on each piece just to keep them talking to each other. And that just makes me think that yeah, this would fail as a phone project, but something like this would be excellent for the Raspberry Pi crowd as a highly modular ARM-based computer with an ecosystem of add-on parts.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:57 AM on September 11, 2013

The popularity of these pocket sized computers that make phone calls poorly shows how little people actually want to take phone calls.

Also, at least with my candy bar phones, the keypads tended to wear out within a couple years or so.
posted by wotsac at 7:57 AM on September 11, 2013

I imagine the best you could do is to to isolate the SoC functions (CPU/GPU/radios/etc) and make standardized connectors between that and the battery/screen/controls. It'd still be bulky, as there would have to be some user serviceable connector between the two. And people would be throwing most of the "phone" part away.

It would also require open source drivers among the various component makers, and good luck with that. Even getting binary blobs is like pulling teeth.
posted by zabuni at 8:01 AM on September 11, 2013

ryanrs: "iPhone 5 teardown. Look at how densely the components are packed."

I knew that Apple had achieved a high level of integration, but that logic board is a piece of art. I'm pretty sure that I've seen digital watches that had larger circuit boards.
posted by schmod at 8:15 AM on September 11, 2013

There's a kernel of a good idea in there - field swappable camera module would be the most interesting, followed by an upgradable CPU, motion detector and pop-off, pop-on display for easy repair or upgrade. It's not mentioned, but an upgradeable antenna would be nice as well.

The battery would be better off baked into the back case rather than the backplane, and all of the little fiddly bits, bluetooth and GPS etc., is already handled by the processor SOC "System on a Chip." It's all baked into the same chip, and I don't see the need to change that.

This approach does introduce inefficiencies in system design, but it also introduces efficiencies in resource consumption and waste disposal, while making smartphone tech more cost effective with a longer operational life.

Those of you coming from the PC world may be aghast at the idea, positive that there's no such thing cleanly interoperating hardware components, but this is something that we've had in the Mac world for a few decades.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:30 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it was jscalzi who postulated that future technology would use RF for interconnect. As I recall it, this was mostly to provide motivation for why a colony that wanted not to be found would have sacrifice all electronics and automation—the cumulative RF emissions from the all the devices would allow it to be easily located, but otherwise it was likely to be overlooked. Unless there's some part of the explanation I missed, it seemed like a weak setup.

But anyway, with wireless power and RF as interconnect you fix two of the main problems people are identifying with this concept. Unfortunately, I also don't think low-power RF is going to give the throughput a modern portable needs (e.g., ~1.5 gigabit/second for a 30fps HD display) even at distances of <30cm.

…but just maybe. Wikipedia says plastics and cardboard(!) are nearly transparent to terahertz radiation. Now we just need efficient terahertz transceivers with sub-mm3 volumes.
posted by jepler at 8:50 AM on September 11, 2013

Guys, you're missing the biggest advantage of this - you could play Diablo III RIGHT ON YOUR PHONE! Along with a host of other spectacular PC RPGs!

Well, the square-counting inventory management parts of the games, at least.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:50 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The idea is sort of neat, but fails for all the practical reasons already mentioned. But there's another reason that such a device would suck: driver hell.

Either everything has a standard software interface and predefined capabilities (in which case what's the point), or you're going to need to be able to tell your processor how to take advantage of the features of a new module. Get a new display that exceeds the specs of the one the cpu already knows about, swap your fingerprint scanner for an iris scanner, or whatever, and you will need to have new drivers.

We've bee here before. Just because PCI connectors were standard didn't make it possible to use just any combination of motherboard and card on any given OS. Given the manufacturers track record of releasing updates, you're likely to end up with a modular system where you can't actually upgrade very much once your existing modules have been superseded by newer ones.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:26 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

pop-off, pop-on display for easy repair

It's worth noting that a lot of phones are this way now. The iPhone 4 and some older android phones were terrible, but the 5 and beyond, and many newer phones are pretty much "two screws and it pops off".

A lot of this is either infeasible, or a solution looking for a problem.
posted by emptythought at 9:51 AM on September 11, 2013


"Those of you coming from the PC world may be aghast at the idea, positive that there's no such thing cleanly interoperating hardware components, but this is something that we've had in the Mac world for a few decades."

This IS the Mac world. Apple just changed the iPhone micro from 32 to 64 bits. Some of that might involve extra pins on the processor, more address and data, for example. Power pins might have moved. Derived signals used elsewhere may have changed. What happens when so much volume is saved that the allocated module real estate becomes almost all air? How is it reclaimed and redistributed? Not easy questions.

Yes, a primitive interface standard (like ISA or PCI) may be developed for inter-module operability. Then, you insert a slowly moving tech that doesn't change as fast as the modules and it becomes a limiting factor, demanding DIFFERENT changes.

This idea seems silly and from a clearly lightweight 'idea' man. Dime a dozen.
posted by FauxScot at 11:53 AM on September 11, 2013

The processor would be on a daughtercard, and include RAM and other supporting electronics for the SOC - it would be the CPU module. The little block doesn't have a single chip rattling around in it, that would be silly.

If the CPU module can be made smaller, great. More room for a bigger camera. Since the RAM is in the CPU module, it can be as 64bit as it wants to be.

Backplanes are a thing, and they generally do a good job keeping up while maintaining backwards compatibility - VMEBus is still going strong almost 30 years later. A well designed backplane standard would be the largest technical challenge - it needs to move data at speed as well as distribute power - but I don't think it's an insurmountable one.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:04 PM on September 11, 2013

Yeah as others have said, this is very impractical. The biggest reason that it would be doomed is that current phones are only as small as they are due to integrating as many of the components together as possible and engineering the rest to fit together perfectly. A fully modular design like the one in the video would never be able to be crammed into as small of a space as the components are in a normal phone.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:36 PM on September 11, 2013

Those of you coming from the PC world may be aghast at the idea, positive that there's no such thing cleanly interoperating hardware components, but this is something that we've had in the Mac world for a few decades.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:30 AM on September 12
[1 favorite +] [!]

You've got to be joking.
posted by Quilford at 2:52 PM on September 11, 2013

I don't know anything about circuitry.

I have, however, fixed my mom's glasses enough times to know that "all held together with two tiny screws!" is a huge design flaw.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:07 PM on September 11, 2013

Frankly, while these sort of ideas are cute, they seem like an even greater waste of resources. Shouldn't the focus for now be in pushing for better designs* & recycling infrastructures?

*by "designs" I mean that components are design so as to make it as easy as possible to separate & reuse the various materials (plastics/metals) in each device to make new ones: Cradle to Cradle being the appropriate phrase.

(Also, if this is actually a good idea, then building it from Raspberry PI/Arduino makes far more sense?)

posted by Ravneson at 3:27 AM on September 12, 2013

On a related note, I sure hope we're keeping all of the stuff that can't currently be recycled in a nice pile at least, so that we can get around to it eventually. Rather than say, putting it in the sea. (Seriously, how did that ever seem like a good idea?)
posted by lucidium at 4:40 AM on September 12, 2013

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