Late last week, a handful of CBC colleagues and listeners sent me a link to Dave Hakkens's Phonebloks, a smartphone project that aims to address the growing problem of electronic waste.

The pitch - as outlined in a slick video - is simple: build a smartphone designed from the ground up to be upgradable and repairable.

The video argues that "electronic devices are not designed to last." Because most smartphones are all-in-one devices, with the screen, processor, antenna, and (often) battery stuck together in a single package, one failed component often means replacing the entire device.

Phonebloks proposes an alternative: modular design.

Think LEGO bricks for smartphones. A Phonebloks phone might comprise a battery block, camera block, processor block, and a variety of antenna blocks, which would all snap together. If one component fails or becomes outdated, you'd need only replace that one part, not the whole phone.

An intriguing idea, to be sure.

Popular concept

For now, that's all it is. An idea. The Phonebloks phone isn't a real product.

Phonebloks handset

The Phonebloks concept gives the phone's owner the ability to choose and upgrade specific features, from the camera to the battery. The modules snap into the body of the phone like Lego pieces. (Phonebloks)

Nevertheless, it's an idea that seems to have gained a lot of traction.

Hakkens, the Dutch designer responsible for Phonebloks, is running a Thunderclap campaign for it. As I write this, more than 600,000 people have backed the idea by pledging their social media reach.

Clearly, there's something about this idea that resonates with some people -- whether that's the reaction to e-waste, or planned obsolescence, or the frustration of a seemingly endless smartphone upgrade cycle.

At the same time, Phonebloks picks up on a very hot trend in smartphone design: customization.

Take, for instance, Motorola's new Moto X. Using Motorola's Moto Maker tool, American customers can choose different colours for the phone's front, back, and accents.

Last week, when Apple introduced the iPhone, one of the big selling points was the different coloured backs and cases, which customers can mix and match to customize the phone's look.

The Phonebloks concept takes that customization one step further. Not only customized colours, but customized features. You can choose from a number of different-sized batteries or types of camera sensors, depending on your needs.


That said, Phonebloks seems more about mitigating the smartphone e-waste problem than solving it. As John Gruber pointed out last week, "even if Phonebloks works as advertised, you'd still be throwing out old components on a regular basis."

Personally, I find some of the language on the Phonebloks website a little bit heavy-handed. For instance, the site claims, "The market of electronic devices is growing rapidly, but it feels like we are building disposable stuff. Every time we make something new we completely throw away the old one."

While it's true that a lot of electronics feel disposable, it's simply not true that every time a new gadget arrives on the market, we necessarily throw away the old one. People often find new uses for old gear. An old Xbox becomes a dedicated media centre. An iPod touch with a broken screen becomes an audio streamer.

And, of course, there's another alternative for broken gadgets: fix them. Though that can be difficult.

A few months ago on Spark, we talked to Kyle Wiens of iFixit about the repairability of modern consumer electronics.

Wiens said that many products that used to be fastened together with screws are now glued together. He says that while they can lower the cost of manufacturing, glued-in components have a serious impact on the repairability of devices like the iPad.

Wiens also talked about what he calls "design anorexia" - how consumers want thinner and lighter electronics. He says super-thin designs can further reduce repairability.

But even if we never see the kind of modular smartphone design that Phonebloks suggests, consumers can always vote with their wallets. We can buy electronics that are designed to last, and that are built with repairability in mind.