Is Phonebloks Concept Smartphone Slacktivism Or The Future Of Product Marketing?

Screen Shot 2013 09 14 at 10.30.52 PM Is Phonebloks Concept Smartphone Slacktivism Or The Future Of Product Marketing?

Phonebloks, a new modular smartphone concept is quickly gathering steam. Or maybe it’s just blowing steam.

Phonebloks creator Dave Hakkens envisions the phone of tomorrow as an open platform where each component is interchangeable and can be sourced by a specialist manufacturer. Rather than throw away an entire phone if your screen breaks, just replace it. If you’re into photography, you can swap out the stock camera set for a high definition camera. Need a bigger battery? It’s up to you, not the phone manufacturer.

Phonebloks is a revolutionary concept that directly attacks the problem of ewaste. Each year we throw away millions of phones, tablets, computers and TVs because they’re outdated, but perfectly functional. The real innovation is the creation and mobilization of an audience for a product that only exists in a YouTube video, and in the mind of its creator.

Using Thunderclap, an online organizing platform for “crowdspeaking,” Hakkens aims to show future Phonebloks stakeholders that there is indeed a market for the concept. Currently the Phonebloks Thunderclap campaign has a social reach of 200 million, with 44 days until the completion. The YouTube explainer video has been viewed more than 10 million times since being published on September 10.

Crowdspeaking or slacktivism?

Is crowdspeaking a new online orgainzing tool or the ultimate form of slacktivism? Social critics accuse today’s social media generation of supporting causes with clicks that don’t lead to real action, like the Kony 2012 campaign to end the practice of child soldiers in Uganda.

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Hakkens isn’t asking for money. He just wants you to donate your social media audience. Thunderclap has been used as an organizing tool by some very high profile names, including Beyonce, The United Nations and The White House. Donating social reach may be the most passive form of activism I’ve yet encountered, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Using a hashtag to track all participants could be far more valuable in the long run, than just gathering money.

But how effective is social reach? As any online community manager will tell you, social media likes are not an accurate reflection of engagement or action. Impressions on social media are an even more dubious metric. However, a Thunderclap with a 200 million+ social reach is bound to rise to the level of a trending topic on Twitter, and will lead to lots of discussion. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Phonebloks is cool, but far from bulletproof

But there’s still a lot wrong with the Phonebloks concept. I showed the video to a friend who is an accomplished industrial designer, and he quickly pointed out several problems. “Not enough seal against dirt, dust and moisture,” he said. Modular units getting loose and sharp, dangerous corners were a few more. People tend to be very rough with their phones. At least I am.  There’s must be a reason why protective iPhone cases are such a lucrative market.

And while the Phonebloks concept may slow down the creation of ewaste, it doesn’t eliminate it.

Even high-end phones are designed to be replaced regularly in a process called planned obsolescence. eWaste is a huge and growing concern. After we dispose of our electronic devices they become a highly toxic part of the waste stream.Old computer monitors, phones, car batteries and other gadgets are shipped by the boatload to China, Ghana, The Philippines, India, Bangladesh and other countries with low wages and lax labor rules to be disassembled by hand. The chemicals can lead to birth defects. Out of sight, out of mind? Not so much.

Replacing obsolete or malfunctioning components on Phonebloks still means throwing them out, unless an efficient mechanism is created to facilitate the sale of used bloks.

The phone handset as an ecosystem

What the iTunes App Store, Google Play and the Amazon Appstore have done for software innovation, Phonebloks hopes to do for hardware.By treating the phone handset as an open ecosystem for innovation, Hakkens hopes to spur the same type of innovation that has created a proliferation of apps since the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

The best phone?

Still, I  love the idea of bringing multiple stakeholders together to create the world’s best phone. The iPhone may be the world’s single most popular smartphone today, but if you’re a fan of Mary Meeker’s trend forecasting slideshows, you’re aware that the Android platform is eating Apple’s lunch in terms of marketshare. Android device fragmentation means phones and tablets for any budget. The Phonebloks concept is not about the device or component makers, but about serving the needs of the people buy them. In this way Phonebloks, or something like it has a real chance of becoming the world’s best phone.


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