re: PhoneBloks

Posted by JoshDreamland on Oct. 4, 2013, 7:38 p.m.

I was going to write this response into the IRC window, but it kind of grew. Cyrus asked me how I felt about this new PhoneBloks idea, then parted the channel briefly. Since I couldn't answer him there, I'll answer him here.

I'm sorry, Cyrus, but I don't see it working for that long; the connectors that join absolutely everything are so large that nothing sensitive could possibly be transmitted over them. I'm therefore guessing that the processor and memory are in the same "block," because otherwise, a 4-bit bus is going to quickly annoy someone.

It's that bus size which is my biggest concern. Yeah, you can swap out the processor (and RAM and, oh yeah, GPU along with it), but that's 40-70% of the phone's worth right there.

I'm also concerned as to whether this has ever been successfully tested; it seems to be a big, unlabeled breadboard. Can I put these "blocks" any old place? What's stopping crosstalk? Is there a special set of pins for the display?

Now, here's the reason it's going to fail: These phones will *never* be cutting edge.

The reason is in its design: you can't easily replace components in existing phones and laptops because manufacturers smash as much shit into the same place as possible without shorting something or starting a fire. That's how we keep shooting for thin and powerful.

If you remove the ability for me to tangle all that shit together in one spot—that is, if I need a whole "block" for the stupidest little component, whose casing and conductors are worth more than the component itself—I'm not going to be able to keep up with the companies who do tangle things.

So maybe this phone is good for the artists and old people they seem to be marketing to, but I'm afraid people who actually want to invest in their phones will continue to buy the high-performance mess models, instead of the above-average-performance cream of the partitioned-phone crop.

So, yeah, the PCI-like capability of this device to swap out components as they age seems great. But then, why am I no longer using my desktop computer from 2003? It was PCI capable! I upgraded the graphics card when I was like 12, and I even upgraded the RAM like, three times, and then… oh.

That's right. I remember what happened.

After a while, I couldn't add more RAM. The processor wouldn't know what to do with it. I mean, I could have replaced both CPU and RAM, but the graphics card I had already upgraded in the near past was already getting old, too. But hey, the great thing about graphics cards is that they're all PCI devices, so I can… oh wait… PCI is dead. Dead and buried. Its successor, PCIe, was the only interface with which you could use any reasonably capable graphics card. That means my only option was to replace the whole fucking motherboard. Well, that's a whole computer. At least I can keep the monitor, right? Oh, wait. VGA is out, too; HDMI and DVI are in. So, what does that leave? The hard drive and case. The hard drive was IDE; IDE is out, too. So, that leaves the case. With this phone, the case is the motherboard. And that's checkmate.

Pardon my cynicism. It's a really neat idea, and I wish for the life of me that laptops and phones could just be like that, if only just long enough to live out SATA and PCIe. But alas… components tend to age at roughly the same rate. Moore's law applies to all components to one degree or another; there's seldom a clear, discrete moment where an upgrade of a specific component is in order. For the sake of repair, though, the idea might be extremely useful. If all we need is a consumer-grade, call-placing and angry-birds-serving device that lasts a while, this idea is super.

If there's any solace to all of this, it's that we're about to hit the limit of the capability of the human eye with regard to screen resolution and refresh rate (assuming we have not, yet, which may be very false), and the need for a new touch screen interface may never arise. That would be the saving grace to this idea, which would thrive on the fact that (1) the screen is the most frequently broken component and (2) the complete logic of the phone (constituting the majority of the price, yes, but…) can be replaced while keeping the monitor and stuff. 3D displays haven't seemed to kill HDMI, even.

If this works, I just predict that those neat little blocks will contain a lot more than initially hoped. I am confident that there isn't going to be a block for bluetooth and another block for wifi.

I expect the majority of this idea's merit to be in the customization (pick your camera size, processor size, battery size), as advertised, and the fact that the screen and logic are separate. I don't know if that in itself will save it.


JoshDreamland 7 years, 3 months ago

No problem. I love looking at quirky new ideas; really, this isn't that far off. It was just written by people with more artistic talent than electrical engineering talent. But then, who knows, maybe that was just an artist's concept of an engineer's much more intricate proposal. I appreciate the black magic remark, but I'm not sure FPGA would be required, necessarily…

Picture this design:

The individual rows and individual columns of holes are all connected by a big bus line, so we basically have a grid of unconnected wires. But, the holes are also divided into 2×2 squares, one of which is assigned to be high, and one other other to be ground, like this:

The other two pins would be the bus connections. This works fine, because there is no reason for a Blok to attempt to send two messages over the same bus concurrently. The smaller diameter of the high/ground holes would also prevent mishaps with people who have zero electrical engineering experience but would still like to assemble their phone personally.

Each component would have a fixed window wherein it has write control to the bus, just as in "normal" computers. The CPU component would constantly be listening to the buses. It isn't special or privileged in its ability to do this; it just does it because connected devices are typically something the processor needs to know (or rather, the kernel running on the processor needs to know—glad I'm not the person that writes this).

Mega 7 years, 3 months ago

The main problem I foresee with this is not the fitting together of the hardware so much as the writing of drivers and software to use it.

Might work if the hardware pieces themselves are 'self aware', containing their own standardized drivers and a visible API to the rest of the system.

It's a nice idea though, but it'll probably work best in a low capacity (Not trying to compete with the bleeding edge market).

Acid 7 years, 3 months ago

I honestly think that we would have the technology to do something similar to this in about 15 - 20 years, but I also speculate that, like the rapid evolution and depreciation of previous technologies, the smartphone will be viewed as a sort of primitive "middle-aged dad/mom" device, like the "dumb" phones that many people's parents/grandparents aren't yet willing to give up.

I assume that the replacement will be some sort of web-OS device built with slightly unnecessary specs for just accessing a web-based interface to try to combat the constantly growing capabilities of newer technology. (Because, while the lifespan of the newest phones is only 6 months to a year NOW, it will be even more difficult to keep up with the advances in the future.)

I'm thinking something that you can still take off, but will be able to comfortably attach to your body - like glasses or a watch. Google Glass might be on to something eventually, as dull as it seems to me now.

firestormx 7 years, 3 months ago

I think this block phone idea is a ridiculous pipe dream at the moment, for the same reasons you listed. *shakes fist like an old man*

KaBob799 7 years, 3 months ago

Yeah that's the problem with a lot of "great ideas" people have nowadays, by the time they finish developing the technology to the point where it can compete in the mainstream a new better technology has already come out.

firestormx 7 years, 3 months ago

I was not reading any comments, actually. I seriously hate comments on most sites. *leaves shaking fist in the air*

Acid 7 years, 3 months ago

The irony is the fact that he created a website where the majority of the content, in my opinion, consists of the comment section.