A tidal wave of innovation can start with one tweet.

Dave Hakkens Twitter Status (Phonebloks)

Or in this case, it can start before the campaign even begins, as Dave Hakkens of the Netherlands discovered last week.

If you haven’t heard of Phonebloks, it’s a pretty revolutionary concept that’s both complex and simple. It also might just transform the business model behind hardware commoditization in the mobile device industry. If you’re old enough to remember a time when a TV or (gasp) VCR could be taken to a repair shop, you’ll intuitively grasp this concept. Waste not, want not. Why throw out an entire device just because one part is broken or old?


Phonebloks + Social Media Reach

What does this have to do with social media reach? Simple. This campaign wasn’t prepared by a company, an agency, or an industry group. It was prepared by one guy (Dave Hakkens) with an idea and some creative skills. Mind you, the quality of the creative isn’t low budget or produced with a handycam – Mr. Hakkens is clearly a talented individual.

What was the effect of the campaign?

This campaign has a singular goal: global awareness. By using the service Thunderclap.it, supporters can ‘donate’ their social reach to Phonebloks. This means that on campaign day (October 29th, 2013), the Thunderclap.it service will syndicate the campaign message through the social media account of every person who has signed up.

The first goal for support was 500 signups on Thunderclap.it. That was eclipsed within minutes of the launch. The second goal was 10,000 (eclipsed within hours). The third? 50,000. Again, blown by within a matter of hours. In fact, the campaign has been so successful that the goal just keeps getting revised upwards. The outpouring of support also knocked phonebloks.com offline, and even caused a short service outage on thunderclap.it. The current campaign goal is 650,000 supporters (achieved this morning). Doubtless, it will be nudged upwards again.

What’s the flowthrough effect of having 650,000 supporters for this campaign on thunderclap.it? When the campaign executes on October 29th, it will certainly be trending globally on Twitter. It will likely also make the rounds on Facebook and Google+, which will attract significant media attention in both the tech press and from more conventional media outlets. Due to the network effect of social media, the current crop of 653,175 signups will expose this message to some 248 million people worldwide on launch day. Currently, the campaign concept video has over 12 million views on YouTube.

Guaranteed, there will be significantly more supporters by October 29th. If this impressive rate of growth in signups continues, there may be upwards of 5 million supporters by October 29th. This would potentially give the campaign enough reach to expose the messaging to every social media user on the planet. This claim assumes an average network reach of 379 people per social media user, and the accuracy of the latest eMarketer research that pegs the total number of social media users globally at around 1.73 billion.

Phonebloks + Innovation

In closing, there are two important things to take away from this whole affair:

  1. Content spreads like wildfire when the idea behind it is usable (or has utility) and is exciting (or relevant).
  2. Ditch the idea that what Dave Hakkens envisions is a better phone. It’s not a phone at all, but a mobile computing hardware platform that can be modularly upgraded. In terms of device utility, this is apples (the “smartphone” as we know it) compared to an apple orchard (Phonebloks).

Perhaps there’s also a third thing to take away; though, it’s more of a personal opinion.

Apple, Samsung, other premium electronics hardware brands in this space, and the established carrier ecosystem have a vested interest in an idea like Phonebloks never becoming a commercial reality. It’s too much of a shift from the status quo and predictable business models with (somewhat) predictable margins. However, this idea is far bigger than a customizable hardware platform for consumer smartphones. Again, if we ditch the idea that Phonebloks is about smartphones, we’re intellectually free to realize that what Dave Hakkens and Phonebloks proposes is really a modular mobile computing hardware platform. What’s the difference? Well, under the latter, who says that a “blok” for making phone calls over a cellular network even has to be a part of the device configuration?

As Phonebloks proposes, an open ‘exchange’ or marketplace selling hardware blocks would be open to any company wanting to sell their products for the Phonebloks platform (somewhat like iTunes, or the Makerbot marketplace Thingiverse). This isn’t necessarily just for consumer-oriented devices, either.

Consider Alternative Possibilities

Why not produce and sell a blok + app that allows small business owners to unpack physical inventory and mark it as received via an infrared scanner ‘blok’?

What if there was a ‘blok’ allowing a scientist to capture and analyze trace elements in the atmosphere (ie, smog?).

What about a payments ‘blok’ allowing an individual to make purchases via NFC or RFID for any stored credit card information?

What about a physical token allowing authorized access to secure or sensitive areas inside research or government facilities?

Or, a physical token allowing access to your home via an RFID tag combined with a fingerprint scanner? (the token scans your fingerprint to ensure that you’re you, and the RFID tag transmits the unlock signal to your front door)

If we look beyond the narrow scope of defining Phonebloks as a consumer telephony device and view it as the modular mobile computing platform that it is, this idea just might have a chance at reaching commercialization in the phase of opposition from established heavyweights. Eventually, the heavyweights may even realize that the current practice of treating hardware as a loss-leader to bring in SaaS revenue is nearly infinitely scalable on a platform like Phonebloks.

Here’s hoping.