History Repeating: Modular Cell Phones

by Christopher O'Brien

By Brian Buchanan

I heard an interview on CBC’s The Current a week ago with Dutch designer Dave Hakkens (PhoneBloks), who is attempting to bring to market the very first of what he calls “modular” cellphones. Essentially, a modular device is one that is customizable and upgradable by the consumer. Don’t like your hard drive? Swap it out. Want a better camera, but you’re not too concerned with the quality of the built-in speakers? Pick your own poison. Check out the PhoneBloks video here.

The idea is that today’s tech-savvy consumers are growing fatigued of the “new model” cycle – they’re sick of having to upgrade their whole phone every year or two just to stay current when the hardware changes are often incremental at best. In lieu of a wholesale replacement, many users would rather just drop $50 on a new battery or add a couple dozen gigabytes of space for their ever-expanding media collection. The modular phone could be an answer to the gadget-flogging philosophy of planned obsolescence.

I won’t get into the advantages and disadvantages of a modular phone ecosystem – I don’t really know enough about the supply-side economics of a system like this. What really got me thinking was the fact that this idea is being heralded as something brand new and revolutionary. It’s not. And the philosophy behind it is certainly nothing new.

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