The Phonebloks initiative has created a (literal) outcry on the web. But will be the project turn out to be just a ‘one-day wonder’, or is it actually responding to real untapped demand?

Mobile Hardware Personalisation: Temporary Craze or Genuine Long-Term Trend?

With over 16 million views since 10 September, the ‘Lego-like phone’ idea has certainly divided opinion. As the Thunderclap ‘crowdspeaking’ campaign reached its end and prepared to send out a simultaneous blast of information to its claimed 650,000 supporters at end-October, l’Atelier sought the opinions of two experts to try and get a better feel for the viability of this project.

Joint interview with Frédéric Duval, Technical Director for mobile terminals at French multinational telecommunications firm Orange, and Bruno Salgues from French public technical higher education and research establishment Institut Mines-Télécom.

L’Atelier: Is the Phonebloks project technically feasible? What would be the obstacles to mass production of this type of device, and where might the pluses be?

Frédéric Duval: Well, you can take the PC as an analogy. The modular concept already exists: you can change a component in order to have a quieter cooling system, for instance. But this movement is hampered by the concern that disparate components won’t work happily together. In addition, there’s a real limitation to the concept of a ‘kit’ phone. The trend is now to create the slimmest smartphone possible with the best-performing battery. This requires full integration of all components, from battery size to operating system quality. And while a Lego-like system might not necessarily perform badly, it certainly wouldn’t be the same from an aesthetic point of view. The barrier to mass production would be cost, as it’s more difficult to gain economies of scale selling components than selling a complete phone.

Bruno Salgues: The project is perfectly feasible as long as the ‘blocks’ conform to the standards in force. There’s no problem about plugging blocks into a printed circuit board. However, since the 1970s, computer technologists have endeavoured to integrate all components so that there are as few connections as possible, since that’s where failures are most likely to occur. The real obstacle to mass production is indeed the cost. These days in order to benefit from maximum economies of scale, bottom-of-the-range phones are manufactured in exactly the same way as those at the top of the range. Manufacturers simply ‘burn’ away some of the functionality.

Phonebloks Chief Technology Officer Gawin Dapper told us that there are a number of possible business models for the Phonebloks concept. Do you think there can really be a business model for a ‘Lego’ phone?

Frédéric Duval: It’s certainly an attractive idea, but for me it remains just that, an idea. I don’t believe that at the present time there’s a place for this kind of initiative in our consumer society, which produces a lot of waste. However, one can certainly appreciate the idea of getting people to become more responsible. It’s a fact that when the battery wears out today you throw the phone away, even though smartphones which came out two years ago are still very good phones.

Bruno Salgues: Yes, there is a model. It’s all about transitioning from a B2B model to a B2C model. These days, components are not available to the general public and are still quite expensive B2B. Opening up to a mass market could change that model. However, the problem of B2C in relation to B2B lies in the fact that the market can very quickly turn its back on your product. Just look at Blackberry and Nokia…

What expectations have you identified that might favour the project? What do you think about planned obsolescence?

Frédéric Duval: There is one definite trend: personalisation. However, this is happening with the phone cases, especially with the progress in 3D printing – in terms of design and textures. But we haven’t seen this happening on the electronic hardware side. Everyone’s talking about the new iPhones and Samsungs. Today novelty has replaced ‘green awareness’. Besides, I don’t think we can really talk about planned obsolescence. Telephones stop working a long time after their renewal dates. It’s not very environmentally-friendly but consumers would rather change their entire phone than simply change the battery.

Yes, but the batteries are now welded on to the phone…

Well, that’s not a trend I encourage but that won’t change anything. Even with phones where you can replace the battery you see the same syndrome.

Bruno Salgues: Well, there is definitely demand. The main concern today is that we see customer demand in terms of software applications, but we have a real problem discerning needs in terms of the hardware. If we understood those needs better that might help us to come up with innovative applications. In fact there’s even a movement among artists along the same lines as Phonebloks – at ‘La Panacée’, [the Contemporary Culture Centre] in Montpellier, for instance. Today we can indeed talk about planned obsolescence. The scandals that have been swirling around Apple are not entirely without foundation.

This new ‘movement’ – if it exists – could it change the manufacturers’ business models?

Frédéric Duval: I don’t think so. Demand isn’t moving in that direction, so they have no reason to change the model.

Bruno Salgues: It’s possible, but you’d have to really identify the demand. It does exist, that’s for sure, but firms need to identify it. A manufacturer that can address this target market would then have a real comparative advantage. However, the model used by manufacturers is today based on cost-related integration and it will be hard to change… unless their image starts to suffer long term. The fact is, up to now their image has held up because they’re not responsible for battery life! An initiative such as Phonebloks could change the picture entirely.

Let’s ask the operator the same question. Do you think manufacturers might be driven to allow component-switching in their phones?

Frédéric Duval: Orange would probably be quite neutral about this. If there’s demand, there’s no reason why customers shouldn’t be able to get what they want. However, today we’re seeing a trend against over-diversifying on the hardware side. So I don’t think this will be something really ‘mainstream’, but our SIM cards will of course still work in this type of phone.

Bruno Salgues: If manufacturers believe in M2M, switching components might well be an interesting way of creating a new market opportunity.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo