In Depth: Thank Phonebloks for Google’s Project Ara

In Depth: Thank Phonebloks for Google's Project Ara

Pushing for change

Google is making great strides in the modularity movement with its customizable smartphone, Project Ara. But the search giant has but one man to thank for getting the tiled phone off the ground.

Creating “a phone worth keeping” was a personal project for Helmond, Netherlands-based designer Dave Hakkens. His initiative, Phonebloks, shaped up as a smartphone with swappable components, but the original idea worked modules into washing machines, coffee makers and refrigerators too.

“When I started this project, IoT [Internet of Things] was the focus. Everything will be connected, so my vision was that everything in your house would eventually be based on modules.

I quickly realized that this was an enormous plan that felt too big, so I started to work on just the phone because not only is it smaller in scale, but it’s something that we all use a lot.”

Hakkens quipped that his “big dream was a good starting point,” but at the time, he had no clue that Phonebloks would be the start of an amazing journey alongside Google.

Every problem has a solution

The inspiration for the modularity project came from an unlikely source: a broken camera. The good news was his point-and-shoot was salvageable. The bad news? It would cost more to repair the camera than it would take just to buy a new one.


This dilemma presents the crux of Hakkens’ argument with Phonebloks: if tech products are built in such a way so that users could easily and affordably swap out components without any technical know-how, they’d be less likely to resort to tossing them in the garbage.

Thus, the goal of Phonebloks was twofold: to paint a crystal-clear picture of the worsening state of electronic waste around the globe and to help get a modular smartphone to market.

Based on modules, or “bloks” as Hakkens usually refers to them, the Phonebloks concept earns the slogan “a phone worth keeping” for a reason.


Rather than being built into the phone, components like the camera and speaker are served up as individual, Lego-like modules that can be replaced should they break or if you want an upgrade. With this setup, you’ll never have to throw your phone away when one part stops working.

Putting Phonebloks on blast

A good idea won’t make it very far if no one hears about it. Fortunately for Hakkens, along with his small team, there was little trouble cooking up interest in Phonebloks.

Their introductory YouTube video scored one million views in just under a day’s time. Capitalizing on this viral success, a follow-up social media campaign gained another one million supporters.


At this point, the tech world was abuzz and even writers at TechRadar got pretty excited. Companies also took notice of the initiative and were eager to meet with Hakkens and the rest of the Phonebloks team to discuss plans for bringing a modular smartphone to fruition.

Of those that took interest, Phonebloks landed on Motorola as the right fit to make that happen. However, Hakkens was unaware that work was already well underway in Motorola’s labs on a modular smartphone before Phonebloks even entered the picture.

“They were working on something secretly in their labs,” Hakkens told me “It was very much still in the brainstorming process, but it was something that they wanted to get started on immediately. Once they saw the splash that we made with the Phonebloks video, they realized that making a modular phone would be a bigger undertaking than it seemed at first.”

Project Ara

The fruits of the collaboration between the Phonebloks community and the brains at Motorola resulted in Project Ara, a vibrant, Android-powered prototype with modular architecture on full display.

“From that point, it really became much more serious. It went public and things really started to accelerate,” Hakkens said. “The people who were working on it saw that there was a need for this phone to exist. Phonebloks boosted their project from where they were to something much bigger.”

The modular future has (sort of) arrived

Since its unveiling in late 2013, Project Ara, now overseen by Google, has drastically improved in operability and has matured into the sleek appearance with the newest prototype, dubbed “Spiral 2”.

What’s more, time has allowed for some innovative module ideas to be thought up. At Project Ara’s developer conferences, established tech firms like Sennheiser and Toshiba have shown off plans for jumping into the modularity ring. But the real promise comes from the developers, who are creating more out-of-the-box modules. Particularly, ones geared toward healthcare solutions.

Project Ara

“It’s in the interest of many to create modules aimed at healthcare. A lot of people don’t really care about having a camera on their phone, but they’d rather have a blood glucose meter.”

These ideas aside, Hakkens thinks the surface of potential has barely been cracked. Because of the phone’s inherent openness, however, this could quickly change.

Project Ara

“Modularity in phones right now is like the App Store when it launched,” he said “At first, you couldn’t possibly imagine all of the unique applications that developers would create, but … you can already see it now with companies brainstorming and producing prototype modules … This is a huge, untapped market.”

Different paths

Phonebloks deserves recognition for building a massive amount of interest for modular smartphones. But with Project Ara, the rest of the cards are in Google’s hands.

Hakkens outlined the Android maker’s plan for the modular phone: “Google set a timeline of two years [from 2013-2015] to see if it’s actually possible to launch a modular phone. Then, they’ll do a test run somewhere to see if people understand the modular concept and see how it sticks, if it runs well, etc.”

Project Ara

Google is, in fact, looking to do a trial run of Project Ara in Puerto Rico at some point in 2015. How that turns out will likely determine when (or if) a widespread release of the modular phone will happen.

Hakkens has been thrilled to be a part of making his dream into a reality, but he’s accepted that during its transformation, the “phone worth keeping” has taken a direction he hadn’t planned.


“The main reason that Phonebloks exists is to reduce waste, but this alone doesn’t totally align with Google’s interests,” he said. “In the end, some of our ideas aligned, but not all of them.”

I asked Hakkens to expand on this misalignment. He offered a clue as to why Project Ara ditched the Phonebloks’s eco-centric focus in favor of customization, or what Hakkens called the “sexier” pitch, that Google has pursued while building the phone “designed exclusively for 6 billion people”.

Project Ara

“The roots of the personalization [of Project Ara] could be because the project began at Motorola,” he said. “They were primarily interested in how they could make a truly ‘personal’ phone. That’s always been their side of the story. That’s why they started the project – I just helped.”

Hakkens stays busy working on new design projects, but he and his core team are constantly collaborating with the Phonebloks community to refine their hopes for modular phone of the future.

“One of the main things we do is give people insights, share updates and videos on our progress,” he said.


Regarding future involvement with Project Ara, Hakken stated, “We [Phonebloks] are independent from Ara, but we really like what they’re doing with the homebrew community, so we are still close partners.

In the end, we really like what they’re doing regardless of whether their emphasis was on personalization or not. Either way, they are developing a modular phone.”

Source:: phones revews