Just replace the part, not the phone

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

WHEN his digital camera broke during a vacation in Greece in 2012, Mr Dave Hakkens decided to take it apart and see what had gone wrong.

He found the source of the trouble: The lens motor had died - and could not be replaced. He would have to buy a whole new camera.

Mr Hakkens, 26, wanted to find something to change that. So, for his graduation project at the Eindhoven Design Academy, he decided to try and upgrade another piece of electronics almost everyone uses - the smartphone.

His concept was to design a modular telephone built of moveable blocks that would allow people to replace individual components of their phones separately. He called it "Phonebloks" and posted a short video explaining the idea on YouTube in September 2013. Within 24 hours, the video had more than a million views.

In less than two months, he had engaged 800,000 people in a Thunderclap campaign to promote the idea via social media. Offers from potential business partners came in. Then Google called.

It turned out that its developers had been secretly working on a modular smartphone quite similar to Mr Hakkens' concept, under the name Project Ara. He was invited to the US to see the project, and Google offered him a job, he said.

He turned it down, and instead made a deal with Google that it would open up its product development to the public and allow him, and his new community of modular phone backers, to become part of the development process.

"I wasn't interested in working for a phone company, and I didn't really want to dedicate myself to one company either," he said.

He regularly visits Project Ara headquarters and reports back to his followers on social media. Project Ara is planning to launch a limited market pilot of its modular phone this year.

Mr Hakkens' Phonebloks site has become a campaign HQ of sorts for promoting electronics that produce less waste. While there were suggestions on how to leverage support for his project to raise capital and set up a company, he is not lured by the idea of getting rich, saying: "The idea is to keep things open and free, because that way everybody gets smarter and everybody wins."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Just replace the part, not the phone'. Subscribe