What if, the camera of your smartphone stops working or its microprocessor has begun emulating a snail? You would probably just discard your old smartphone and buy a new one, adding a few more ounces to the global eWaste burden. Multiple frequent updates in mobile technology, hardware and software have led to high discard rates when it comes to mobile phones. Currently cell phones are the major contributor to the ever increasing pile of electronic waste.
“Active cell phone users will surpass the figure of 7.3 Billion by 2014”. This statement was released by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) at the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The figure is approximately equal to the global population. Another report published in Chemical and Engineering News, over 1.8 billion cell phones were bought in 2014. Ironically, in the same year 4 per cent of the cell phones bought ended up as eWaste and only 3 per cent of that were recycled.
Modularity seems to be a possible deterrent to the current ‘use and throw’ culture when it comes to our gadgets and help curb the eWaste problem. Several technology experts and innovators have endorsed the idea of “Modular Phone” to cut down the rate at which cell phones are discarded presently. It is estimated that, reduced consumption of cell phones will dramatically cut down the annual eWaste production. Let’s take a look at whether modularity in our smartphones and gadgets can help us cut down eWaste.
Modular Phone: Conceptually Solid & Environmentally Responsible

 

 

phonebloks-2-CopyModular Phones are built around a structural frame (endoskeleton), which acts as the arbitrator for device. The structural frame holds all the component modules of the Phone. Components of the phone are designed like swappable modules and can be replaced in case of a malfunction or damage. Modular Phones will allow users to update or upgrade outdated hardware of their cell phones and customize their phones based on their specific requirements. For instance, if one’s requirement is snapping high definition pics, they can just upgrade to a high resolution camera module with a modular phone, without having to upgrade to an entirely new smartphone. Or if you wish to increase RAM or get better sound on your phone, all you need to do is just swap the old component for a new one.
The whole concept of a Modular Phone is to make the process of customization, upgrading and repairing a smartphone extremely easy and user friendly for the consumers.
• The modular design of a cell phone or Modular Phone was conceptualized by Dave Hakkens. Later Dave set up Phonebloks. Phonebloks is currently assisting cell phone manufacturing companies to implement the idea of Modular Phone efficiently and effectively. The major thought behind developing a Phonebloks is to reduce the astronomical amount of eWaste generated globally.
• Inspired by Phonebloks, technology giant Google is also working on its ambitious project, under the code name Project Ara to manufacture Modular Phones by as early as 2015. Google has claimed that the Structural Frame or Endoskeleton of the Modular Phone will be available as cheap as $50. After buying the Structural Frame, users can customize or upgrade the device with components, according to their need, choice or budget. Like a desktop personal computer, users will get the liberty of choosing only those components which they desire. Users, will be able to upgrade camera, batteries and other components of the Modular Phone in an extremely user friendly way.

 

Finnish Firm Circular Devices is also developing a Modular Phone, called the Puzzlephone. the Puzzlephone will consist of three parts; Spine, Heart and Brain. The Spine will have LCD, speakers and basic structure of the Modular Phone. The Heart will contain battery and secondary electronics and the Brain will be made up of microprocessor and camera module. The company is researching on the project since 2013 and has advanced to the stage where, now it can produce working prototypes.

 

Why Modular Phones?
With smartphone tech rapidly changing every day, manufacturers are competing fiercely to retain the title of the best technology innovator by launching new products with improved features within small durations. Stiff competition among phone manufacturers to stay superior among others has thrown infinite options in front of the consumer. As a result, consumers tend to upgrade new phones quite frequently, adding to the world’s eWaste woes. Currently the average lifespan of a cell phone is about 18 months. People either discard their cell phones due to some ill functionality or simply upgrade them for a better hardware.
Modular Phone will eliminate this mindless discarding of smartphones prematurely, just for the sake of new hardware update. Let’s take a look at the upsides of the modular phone:

 

 

 

Customized: Modular Phone provides the flexibility of upgrading the hardware of a smartphone without changing the entire phone. It will allow people to keep their phone in use for a longer period of time. Increased lifespan of a cell phone will automatically reduce generation of smartphone eWaste, and the demand for new phones. Reduced production of cell phones will also help lower consumption of various rare and expensive materials used in manufacturing.
Cheaper: As claimed by Google, the endoskeleton of the Modular Phone will not cost more than $50. People can upgrade and customize the Modular Phone according to their budget and needs. It will also allow a user to upgrade the device at some later point of time. This will decimate the need of buying a new phone, just to get an upgraded hardware. This incredible flexibility will allow people from lower income groups to have access to a smartphone and at the same time provide the option of a much cheaper upgrade. Cheap access will allow smartphones to penetrate rural markets and markets comprising of weaker sections of the society.

 

 

Reduce eWaste: We, as a world produce nearly 50 million tonnes of eWaste annually and this number is rising at an alarming rate. Due to the short lifespan of a normal smartphone, it either lands up early in landfills as eWaste creating pollution or in informal scrap yards, where they are processed using primitive and polluting methods. The actual life of a cell phone is much more than the time it is used for. For instance, the LCD display of a cell phone can last up to 10 years but it gets discarded due to some problem or the other within a couple of years.
The eWaste created by cell phones lies in landfills or incinerators, causing major environmental hazards. Modular Phones will make sure that a cell phone is used for a longer time by being easily upgradable and reparable. The longer life of a cell phone will translate into lesser cell phones getting dumped in garbage as eWaste.

 

 

Hurdles before Modular Phone

 

 

However, there are a few hurdles on the way for modular phones to come into the mainstream:

 

• Due to its modular design, phone could weigh heavier than normal phones. There is every possibility, that Modular Phone may not look stunningly beautiful and may feature bulky modules.

 

• Assembling or swapping parts of the Modular Phone will demand a certain level of technological awareness. Manufacturers will face a challenge to market their product among people who are less tech savvy or obsolete to the idea of technology.

 

• While the Endoskeleton of the Modular Phone will be available for $50, it may be tough to manufacture other component modules at cheap prices. There may even be a possibility that some other brand will sell normal smartphones with the same or better configuration than Modular Phones at a cheaper price.

 

• Performance of Modular Phones will be a concern for users and Modular Phones will be compared to high end smartphones which are optimized to give most efficient and excellent performance even in the worst of conditions.

 

• Modular Phones are targeted to penetrate low end markets of developing countries of Asia and Africa. However, a large part of lower economic section of developing nations is illiterate and is also too poor to afford a $50 dollar endoskeleton.

 

• Reduced closer integration between hardware components and hardware and software will majorly affect the performance of the phone.

 

 

 

All these hurdles could end up making Modular Phone an average performing, overpriced device. Consumption of EEE products needs to be reduced immediately to control the production of eWaste for a healthier environment and mankind. The concept of Modular Phone is an excellent and very innovative idea to cut down consumption by increasing the life of cell phones or smartphones. Cell phones contribute majorly to the amount of eWaste produced and any reduction of its consumption will solve the problem of ever increasing eWaste significantly.