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Phonebloks: Is the World Ready for a “Forever” Phone?

by Maxwell Tielman


If you’ve watched television at all recently, you’ve likely seen the ads: a friendly voiceover saying, “there’s nothing like that feeling of getting something new,” and the image of a man opening his new smartphone’s box—his face filled with rapturous glee, bathed in golden light, angelic music playing in the background. The advertisement is for Verizon Edge, a program that allows you, for a small fee, to dodge the wait for upgrade eligibility and switch over to a sleek, brand-new phone whenever your heart desires. Over the past several months, other cellular providers have been rolling out similar plans, aimed at catering to consumers’ ever more ravenous appetites for the new, the novel, and the cutting edge. AT&T’s Next program allows you to upgrade to a new phone once a year while T-Mobile’s Jump allows you to have this pleasure twice a year. “Two years is too long to wait for a new phone,” the T-Mobile Jump website boldly proclaims.

There are a few reasons why this particular development in smartphone marketing is disturbing. For one—I can’t help but see myself in these advertisements. I know how golden-faced-new-phone-guy feels—I’ve been there. And if you’ve purchased a smartphone in the past several years, you likely have been there, too. For whatever reason, the un-boxing of  one of these small devices feels amazing—it gets those neurons firing and for a brief moment, you get to feel strangely cool as you parade your new technological marvel around town. Underneath all of this manic, technology-induced splendor, though, we all know that these feelings, at their core, are irrational. We know that it’s silly. However, these new programs and advertisements, some of the most blatant celebrations of rampant consumerism in recent memory, rationalize these feelings and allow us, like rats in a Skinner box, to indulge in our tech addictions on a whim.

This brings me to the second and probably most troublesome reason why this is disturbing. It makes smartphones, and any similar technology, essentially worthless. Although our little smartphones are tiny feats of extraordinary engineering, they can now be seen as disposable—capable of being switched out on a lark for something that will briefly placate our irrational (and unfortunately, quite human) desire for the new. This, coupled with the fact that most technology is already created with manufactured obsolescence in mind, makes for a system that is extraordinarily, needlessly wasteful—an environmentally taxing contribution to our ever-growing pile of technological waste.

As with many technological issues facing our world today, this problem starts with design, but it can also be solved through design. Currently,  there are no phones (or computers, or cameras, or tablets) on the market that are explicitly designed to last. On the contrary, the need for constant income and consumer interest prevents many companies from investing in such notions and, instead, they manufacture a two-year (or shorter) shelf-life into their products. If we’re trying to prevent waste and help create a more sustainable culture, this is clearly not helping. This is why, when my Facebook and Twitter feed started to get overwhelmed with links to Phonebloks, I was beyond happy and more than a little bit relieved. A complete breath of fresh air amongst all of this smartphone upgrade hoopla, Phonebloks presents an idea that stands at sharp contrast to our current state of affairs: a phone that lasts forever. (Sort of.)

The problem that Phonebloks attempts to solve is the needless disposal of technological devices when just one or a few of its elements wears out or becomes to outdated. Oftentimes, as is the case with most smartphones and computers, the only thing that really needs to be upgraded is a small part—a processor chip, a broken camera lens, a damaged audio jack. Still, the current systems in place make it wildly difficult (if not entirely impossible) to switch out these parts, forcing a necessity to constantly upgrade. What Phonebloks offers is an easy and remarkably simple way to swap out old parts and customize your phone. Comprised of a series of blocks, each with a specifically sanctioned purpose (battery, screen, processor, speaker), one need only change out one of these lego-like fittings in order to stay on the cutting edge.

Currently, Phonebloks is still just an idea—the man behind it, the Netherlands-based Dave Hakkens, is slowly gathering support for the project and hoping to partner with designers, engineers, and developers who will make it into a reality. Still, just the idea in itself is as timely as it is necessary. As we careen ever more rapidly towards irreparable environmental damage, we need ideas like this—ideas that shed light on the folly of our purchasing ways and the un-sustainability of current systems. Right now, the world seems poised and ready for an idea and a product like Phonebloks. The question is, will the world accept it? Consumers today (and I am absolutely including myself in this) are drawn not just to functional technology but fashionable technology. So much of our purchase logic expands beyond rational need and into the tricky, elusive realm of desire. Will Phonebloks, if it ever does come to fruition, provide consumers with the same sense of desire? Are we ready for it? Are you?

As the Phonebloks concept has gained traction over the last few weeks, these questions and many more have arisen. While some analysts claim that such a phone wouldn’t appeal to consumers, others say that, should it be produced, it would be prohibitively expensive. Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks, was able to take some time from his no doubt busy schedule to chat with us about some of these issues and his future plans for Phonebloks. Check out the interview after the jump! —Max


What inspired you to pursue Phonebloks?

I’ve got an old canon compact camera which broke, so I wanted to fix it. When I took it apart, I found all these nice, perfectly good components like a display, flash, battery, and little gear. Everything was still good except the lens motor. I looked for a spare part, but Canon basically told me to get a new one (like always). And then I realized this is how it always goes with electronics—if it’s broken you throw it away you don’t fix it. When you have a flat tire you don’t throw away your bike. You fix it. This method creates a lot of e-waste. I wanted to see if I could bring any help in fixing it.

So much of the reason that people are constantly upgrading their phones has to do with fashion over functionality. Consumers are often obsessed with whatever is new or cutting edge and recent programs from cellular providers, aimed at allowing consumers to upgrade to a new phone at their own volition, seem to be catering to this. What makes you think that the world is ready for a “forever” phone? Do you think that consumers will be open to the idea?

Well, that was the part of our goal with testing it out. I’m ready for it, but I wanted to see of other people and companies were ready for it. It seems like they are But, indeed, they might have to change the way in which they currently use their phones.

Many electronics manufacturers and retailers offer recycling and trade-in programs for “old” phones. Is there evidence that suggests that these programs aren’t being taken advantage of and/or aren’t as sustainable as they should be? What makes Phonebloks superior to this model?

Those programs are great, no doubt about it. But the truth is that most phones end up in the normal trash and not properly recycled. Even if they are recycled, you’ve still lost all the energy in making those products. A two year lifetime is just too short.

Manufactured obsolescence is a huge problem in all facets of design, not just mobile phones. People often replace their computers, cars, and televisions long before their actual lifespan is up and occasionally, these products’ lifespans are intentionally limited by the manufacturer. Are there plans to expand the Phonebloks model beyond mobile phones?

I would absolutely love that! In fact, I think that’s one of my main biggest interests as a designer. But…first the phone.

One of the more problematic things about mobile operating systems today is that they’re closed environments—there is little compatibility between operating systems and customizability can only go so far. In addition to creating hardware that follows the “open source” model, are there plans to create software that is customizable in the same way?

Honestly, before starting this I was mostly interested in the hardware, not the software. But we gotten a lot of developers and OS engineers that want to work on this topic and develop something amazing. So if the time will come, it won’t be just a OS, it will be something special that suits the phone.

While the majority of people seem thrilled at the idea of a more long-lasting phone, some critics argue that a thing like Phonebloks would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture and buy. Do you have a response for these detractors?

I’ve always believed in an honest price— if it is more expensive, then that’s just the way it is. Like fair trade products or organic food, sure it’s more expensive, but you are also helping to solving a problem.

Phonebloks has generated a whirlwind of public support and excitement since it was announced. Were you expecting such a strong response?

My original goal was to gather 500 people and currently we’re at over 800,000. So no, did not expect it!

As of right now, you’ve reached your social outreach goal for the project. What comes next? Is there a goal for when you’d like to see Phonebloks on the market?

Basically this [social discussion] was my goal. But now I’ve got so many people and companies that are willing to help, I’m figuring out what would be the best next step to take. But since I wasn’t prepared for all this positive response, I still need to figure it out.

We can’t wait!

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  • This.Is.AMAZING! My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m always using things until they absolutely cannot be used or fixed anymore. My car and computer included. I’ve only just recently joined the smartphone world because I wasn’t having any problems with my “dumbphone”. And my extrememly low phone bill was also great. I would totally support a phone like this! There is already so much waste in this world, we need to cut down anywhere that we can!

  • Thanks for such a fantastic article! This is a really intriguing possible product. I recently had to replace my laptop, which I was extremely unhappy about, but the repair place basically said that a repair would be more expensive than a new computer. This is ludicrous. I wish this guy all the luck in the world with this enterprise. Hopefully, it will at least start people thinking about just where their old devices end up. Everything has to go somewhere.

  • Amen! I hate it when stuff breaks and needs to be replaced, especially when it cost a good amount of money to begin with. When I was a kid, we used a laundry basket that my mom got in college to hold our dress up clothes. That 35-year-old basket is still going strong, with maybe one crack (because really, no laundry basket is exactly meant to be used as a pretend spaceship). I was so ticked when, after I got married, I had to buy several laundry baskets (costing more than I thought they should!) and one of them broke almost immediately! I’m still using it, even though it threatens to rip something every time I use it. I just can’t justify buying a new one, because I feel like they should last for 40 years!

  • Very good article, Max!

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but there are some funny passages that highlight the cultural difference between the US and Europe. Especially the low countries and Scandinavia have been focused on the environment for a long time, so reading your interview is a bit like seeing a child “investigate” a flower. Another case in point is your dear Dan, who barked at me for proposing insulation rather than airconditioning :-P

    On the topic, David Mitchell actually proposed the subscription concept in relation to furniture. He ment it to aid sustainability (YouTube link above). His reasoning was that a company obligated to switch broken furniture is inclined to make better furniture, that lasts longer.

    Of course this cannot be applied, if the joy of owning is the unwrapping, rather than the use.

  • Love this idea and really hope it becomes the next model for cell phones. I really love that everything is open source, making it possible for anyone to develop a new blok for whatever we may need in the future.

  • Max, thanks for pointing out the Verizon Edge commercial. That kind of marketing drives me crazy. It pits the idea of “you deserve it!” against “you don’t need it”- you know what I mean? We shouldn’t have to choose between the *gleaming beauty and happiness* of a new device and the *pious misery* of the earth-friendly choice. I feel like we’re better than that false dichotomy.

  • Thank you so much for the insight on this! I’ve seen the video before on facebook and loved the idea (as well as my boyfriend). We would buy for sure!

  • I just finally upgraded to an iPhone 5. I would have happily kept using my iPhone 4 (which was over 3 years old) if I could have just upgraded the camera. This design idea makes my very happy. (My old. 4 will continue to get a lot of use out of it as an iPod for the kids).

  • this is GREAT! Love this idea. I’ve been using my (dumb) phone for 4 years, even though my provider keeps acting like I might as well be making calls on Bell’s original model. It still does the job (of, you know, making and receiving phone calls) so why would I upgrade to something more ostentatious and unnecessary?
    I will definitely let my husband know, I’m sure he’d be on board with the idea!

  • Yes yes yes. Thank you for sharing this brilliant concept! My husband & I are always looking for products that will last a lifetime, if not many generations. We are growing weary of the pile of outdated/obsolete technologies in our home that have nowhere to go except the trash.

  • Thank you, so much, for bringing up this topic. The number of minerals and elements used in the production of one phone… the components that are toxic that end up in landfills… both of these issues (and everything you brought out in the article) should be concerns for most people. Promoting a disposable culture in small things only makes it easier in large things.
    Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!

  • Kinetics: of or relating to the motion of material bodies and the forces and energy associated therewith

    Interesting that you posted this up. I just recently came across Kinetic Architecture, a sort of obscure book from the 70s. A lot of similar applications in architecture, furniture, and transportation. These concepts have been around for well over 40 years, the real question is what is stopping them from being implemented?

    Best quote: “Within a decade or two it will be generally understood that the main challenge in the U.S. society will turn not around the production of goods but around the difficulties and opportunities involved in a world of accelerating change and ever-widening devices. Change has alway been a part of the human condition. What is different now is the pace of change, and the prospect that it will come faster and faster, affecting every part of life, including personal values, morality, and religion, which seem most remote from technology.” ~Max Ways 1964

    This is why I love Vitsoe shelves so much.

  • I’ve been using a Neanderthal mobile ever since I got it free for signing a 3 year contract with a major provider. It is older than most of the people manning the mobile phone kiosks in shopping malls. It makes and receives calls. That’s it. I rarely use it as I am mostly at home. Recently I’ve been trying to convince my self to get a smart phone but doubt I would use it enough to warrant the major increase to my monthly bill when I add a data plan. This article has done nothing to sway me towards updating. Doesn’t sound like the new phones are made to last and I hate the idea of planned obsolescence.

  • Max, I just want to say how much I’ve been enjoying your posts. I often skim the text to simply savor the eye candy on D*S posts, but I’ve found myself stopping and fully reading posts a lot lately – all of which end up being yours. They’re funny, they’re still hitting my eye-candy-quota, and they’re really interesting subjects. Thanks!!

  • Am I missing something here? Your solution to throwing away an entire phone is to throw away a part of the phone. I could see this growing into something far more wasteful and more expensive. Now instead of your whole phone upgrading every year, you’ll have different parts of your phone constantly upgrading and now tons of these little parts are being thrown away just as fast as a whole phone was before. Noble idea, but I don’t think this is a successful solution.

  • Carly, sadly I think you are missing the point. Parts are far easier and actually less expensive to replace. I have personally rescued so many electronics from the trash. It is exactly that mindset which thinks that it is far easier and less expensive to for example replace an old computer with a new computer instead of just upgrading the memory or replacing the hard drive. With that same example that old computer will often end up in the trash and won’t actually be recycled. There are places in the world that become recepticles for electronic waste. Companies actually make the notion of replacing only the parts you need seem expensive and more wasteful. Because they don’t want you to keep replacing parts. Husqvarna who make everything from chainsaws to sewing machines, completely got rid of the parts required for older sewing machines, simply because they wanted customers to buy new machines. Instead of replacing the necessary parts.

  • I just think from a marketing standpoint, now a company can sell
    Individual upgrades to lenses, speakers, and whatever else. Now They have more to sell, and at a lower price, more often. It’s just like device cases, that’s an entire market of plastic that people throw away when they see a new design or get bored. Companies would tap into these tiny upgrades, and now I’m suddenly changing out these pieces every month, and companies are encouraging a high turnover. So really equal or more waste. Again, I see the point, and it would make less waste if there weren’t entrepreneurs drooling at any new opportunities :)

  • I’ve been listening to and reading a lot about the phoneblok.
    I found the whole concept completely interesting and plausible for our future, the only issue is whether the phoneblok can be aesthetically pleasing.

  • Imagine this: Your description here was the first time I’ve heard of this.
    You do not need to get sucked into buying all this new stuff.
    I don’t have TV. I do not check websites that try to sell me stuff (except this website, which is becoming more and more commercially-motivated, I’ve noticed). I do not have a smart phone.
    I read a local newspaper each day, I call or text friends when I want to get together, and I have conversations when I have more to say.
    Imagine that.

  • This is an Awesome idea ! If this product comes to Portugal i will buy it! Congrats on the idea!

  • I am all for less waste. I find it very curious though, a website devoted in large part to “things” and acquiring “things” has such a negative slant on the marketing and products of phone companies. Yes, this site has more, like handmade items, art and artists, and helping others achieve in the worldwide marketplace as a maker, seller, consultant, etc….but I can’t help hearing the contradiction when Maxwell Tielman is writing negatively about other ‘consuming’ type of entities out there…and he is part of one too. I think if you are going to name actual companies in a negative light on this website, you should also hold the mirror to yourselves. I cannot read anything on this website without an advertisement that follows it, just like this actual post ends with an AT&T advertisement. This website is exactly like the companies it criticizes in this post. There is good and bad in every company that ‘sells’ something…and if DesignSponge can’t see it’s own bad…they are a lot less smart than I thought they were. I enjoy DesignSponge, and sometimes I cannot for all the advertisements now on it, but I get it, they need to pay people to make DesignSponge. I’m just surprised DesignSponge doesn’t get it themselves. I hope my post doesn’t get deleted.

    • Wendy

      I’ll let Max respond more specifically to your comment, but I’d like to add one quick thing. Based on my reading of his post, Max is taking issue with certain companies designing products and goods that are knowingly going to require upgrades, changes or complete replacements in a short amount of time. It’s that sort of built-in upsale to the buyer that is the problem.

      While I understand that we discuss products here, Design*Sponge as a business is not actually the same as those companies, as you suggested.

      We have built a model that has, for the past 9 years, required absolutely no change from or upsale for our readers. You’re not being asked to pay for a subscription and then upgrade or renew every 6 months. You’re not being asked to pay for anything, actually. So for me, it’s important to designate between a system that is designed to require a new sale from a customer on a regular basis and one that’s been consistently providing a product at no cost to the reader.*

      *I know the viewing of ads is undesirable for some, but I think ads that you can simply overlook are a very different “cost” than a literal purchase or upgrade that requires action and money from a user.


  • Hi, Wendy!

    You are right about the somewhat contradictory nature of this post and I tried to touch upon this a little bit in my write-up. I certainly don’t exclude myself when I discuss the issue of consumerism today and the desire for the new. I think that most people, myself absolutely included, grapple with this issue on a daily basis. I think it is extremely important, though, to shed light on these issues so that people can have a wider understanding of the negative systems in place in the market and make educated decisions about their own purchasing habits.

    Grace already pointed out the reason behind our advertising model, so I won’t dwell on that right now. But as for the type of content we post here on Design*Sponge— we *do* post products regularly, but we are by no means supporting the kind of rampant consumerism that the aforementioned cellular trade-in programs promote. As has always been part the Design*Sponge ethos, we love great design—especially great design that will enrich people’s lives, and that people will want to keep forever. This is what Phonebloks is about. It *is* a product and it *is* available to purchase, but it helps to solve a problem (a very, very large problem). This is what design should do—solve problems. This is design at its best and that is what we always strive to share with our readers on Design*Sponge.

    Thanks for your feedback!


  • Grace,
    I appreciate your response. I am positive it is not the only aim of technology companies to create products/profit at the consumer’s cost. I want you to know I do already realize those things about DesignSponge. It is really a mentality and approach to consumption that gets perpetuated that I am struggling with. That approach then coupled with criticism got to me today. And really, the newest any ‘thing’ promoted in the market place seems to tell us to replace what we already have. I understand what Maxwell explained. Thinking of it this way, why upgrade say, the scarves we already own to keep us warm? Because someone made a newer/cooler more trendy one with navy and navy makes us all so happy? Do you understand what I mean by that? Advertising companies wouldn’t be interested in this site if there wasn’t some sort of persuasion that had a distinct value. And truly, I am no better than anyone else out in the world consuming and criticizing. Believe it or not, I appreciate your site. I don’t want to perpetuate negativity with negativity. While my approach wasn’t ideal, it was meant as food for thought.

    • Wendy

      I understand what you’re saying, but I think my basic assumption about all of our readers is that they’re capable of deciding when and if they need a new scarf (to continue that example). I don’t feel that posting multiple options within a category (like accessories) is the same as telling people they have to buy a new version of something and trash the old because it will no longer work or be compatible with their existing systems.

      I know for myself, I use product posts as a way to find inspiration for other ideas, too. It might be the pattern in that scarf that inspires me to paint a wall with a certain color palette or choose certain paper colors for a DIY project, etc. I see design, whether it’s a product or an interior, as a jumping off point for so much more than simple “buying”. I see it as a way to crack open the door to more ideas.


  • And thanks, Max for your response too. I appreciate your honesty. I took the approach I dislike in others. I feel strongly about theses things, but was wrong in my approach, and for that, I apologize to you all at DesignSponge.

  • To the point, this is the direction we need to go. We have so much tech as it is, and it is in the trash or being under utilized, that we need concepts that use what we already have and that can incorporate the new tech as it happens. This looks like that sort of concept.

  • It´s a good idea but it doesn´t have profits for the market. So the problem to face, in my opinion, is consumption. We must think us, as part of the mannufacturing process: we end it, and it is possible because of us.
    This blog show us a beautifull way of recycling matterials, between other topics. Thanks Design Sponge!

  • I think any idea which will help to stop or slow down this crazy “I need the newest smartphone right away”-behavior is good and much needed. Recycling is so important here and needs to be done right.
    This post reminded of smth else, which has to do a lot with the “gadget-hunger”. Maybe you would like to check it out: http://bloodinthemobile.org/

  • Es lo que necesito, puesto que cada mes salen nuevos productos y uno se queda apendando con su celu viejito por los pixeles, o memoria o pantallas con mejor resolucion, con esto uno solo cambiaría lo que le interesa y poder estar a la par con la tecnología muy cambiante, espero salga pronto y es lo que nuestro planeta necesita, esperemos las corporaciones se preocupen por esta situación, porque si no, hay que buscar un gran basurero para la chatarra de tecnologia que uno anda renovando.

  • Ir think this is a great idea the only thing is that we have got these thin phones an some are very colorful an have great features if we can transfer what we have to this phone that would be great

  • Fascinating! The whole concept as well as the comments discussion. I was thinking in the vein Grace stated….we don’t HAVE to buy anything! I see this problem as a personal issue which corporations have encouraged by directing their ads at school kids who are so wrapped up in being and having the best above all others. Then they grow up and teach it to their kids. I’m much older plus I spent most of my life in the country where incomes are lower and repair is assumed for everything. My grandparents only bought new furniture, appliances, et al, once. My parents did it twice. I have a lot of their old purchases cuz I like this beautiful, well-built stuff. And places like Design Sponge and blogs show me how I can make them more modern with just a few changes.

    I love Design Sponge and seeing what’s out there, and like Grace, I often take a product and twist it into a different product I make for myself. I think people are moving away from frenzied buying based on the fabulous indie rage. People are crocheting again ad actually wearing what they make. And each Indie is getting ideas from others.

    I have a Samsung Galaxy II and would keep it for as long as it would work, if I could get it repaired; it does what I need. My laptop is a 2004 model and though it’s been repaired a couple times, I still find it does the job (one problem is when electronics get too advanced for mine to understand, I’ll have to replace it….unless Max knows how to upgrade that too :-) ). And I think there are a LOT of people that would love phonebloks IF the price was reasonable. I hope you keep after it Max, cuz you may have a big company some day soon.

    We all need to pull back a little and realize ‘that feeling’ may be costing the earth more than it can handle.

    Thanks for the great article and the comments that made me think…that’s a good feeling too.

  • The idea of fixing broken electronics as opposed to dumping them is not a new idea, but it’s time that it returned. I am ancient enough to remember TV and stereo repair businesses in storefronts, similar to shoe and watch repair businesses if you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where these haven’t yet disappeared. I hate sending an item to e-waste when I know that the right tinkerer with the right tools could have fixed it.

  • I personally think that this project is amazing, but there are still questions to answer:
    1. Will it use some of the existing OS, a modified existing OS or a new created one?
    2. What and where will be the jacks (charging, phones jack etc.)?
    3. If the Blok Store will succeed, will be there any presets that can be customized or maybe browsed through (so you can access presets that people browsing through the Blok Store made)?

    If the Phonebloks will succeed and it will not cost more than $400, I am your new customer. :)