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Design for reuse... Answered

The "1st world" (that would be us) is infamous for its rampant and wasteful consumerism. Buy an electronic gadget with N times the power of the OLPC machine, then throw it away after two years (incidentally filling landfills with all sorts of questionable stuff.) Meanwhile, other parts of the world starve for technology.

Do you think it would be possible to SLIGHTLY modify the design of 1st world consumer products to make it easier to reuse them (or parts of them) in devices conceptually similar to OLPC? I mean, consider the cell phone. Modern cell phones have cameras, flash card sockets, relatively high-res (but tiny) displays, relatively high-quality sound capability, low power consumption in standby mode, and radio based networking capabilities. It seems pretty close to an OLPC device to me (tell me an Apple iPhone wouldn't be an adequate replacement for an OLPC...)

Why can't "we" convince a cell phone manufacturer to design the internals such that when the phones original life is over, it's guts can get a larger display and keyboard and new software, and become someone's computer or eReader. People are willing to donate their old phones to assorted worthy causes now; they might even be convinced to pay an extra $10 to purchase a phone that is MORE reusable. (or is it more expensive to do this sort of "refurbishment" than to build brand new machines?) Now that wireless headsets are common, it's not even necessary for a cellphone to retain a "phone-like" size and shape. Can I have a paperback sized combination cell phone and eBook reader that will have a second life as "just an eBook reader"?

What would it take to make a cellphone reusable as the core of a general purpose computer?
1) extend and standardize display interface to allow page-sized display.
2) extend and standardize keypad interface to allow keyboard (?)
3) internal software nearly completely replacible with a general purpose OS.
4) inappropriate radio functions capable of being removed, disabled, or converted to more appropriate functions (ad-hoc wireless networking)

Some of those seem like things manufacturers would be doing anyway, just to reduce their own costs. Creating a reusable cellphone core may be more a matter of documentation than anything else (and politics. Not that either is easy.)

Next, what other electronic devices do you have that you're likely to be done with before they break? An MP3 player could use the same standardized display link and reprogramability as cell phones. Your LCD monitor could implement the other half (old cell phone plus old monitor = general purpose computer?) I don't think there's enough standardization in the desktop computers to reuse them; their complexity makes reuse too administratively complex, and they're probably too power-hungry anyway.

The "maker" community already spends a fair amount of effort reusing "appliances" as general purpose compute engines; usually "improving" the product in its original application space, or getting cheap cycles from a product that failed and is being sold off cheap. Creating intentionally reusable electronics would feed that community some, but it isn't big enough to absorb ALL the discards of our quick-moving society. A lot could be funneled into putting technology where it couldn't afford to be before.

(some quick Google use says:
In the US, we throw away over 400,000 cell phones PER DAY link
In Europe, 27% of mobile phone user buy a new phone every year link; only 5% of the old phones are recycled.
Overall, less than 1% of cell phones are recycled. link; cell phone sales are expected to exceed 1 billion per year by 2009.
(I pick primarilly on cell phones because they seem SO CLOSE to being a general purpose computer, AND small enough to possibly incorporate into a larger "second life" product.)



10 years ago

Hear, hear! Not only could this help 3rd world places, but also the oft-ignored poor and working poor in wealthier countries. I'd love to pick apart and reassemble modular pieces in addition to individual components like I currently do.

My only negative response would be what others have already said: "There's no money in it" ... However, having said that, there probably could be a niche market ala the open source software movement (at least with the interoperability specs). I would certainly buy electronics that I could pull apart and fairly easily re-purpose later.


11 years ago

First off, I think it's a great idea. The main problem is that the manufacturers probably will see nothing in it for them, and so they won't do anything with the idea. BTW, From what I've heard, the iPhone comes with a version of OSX.

. Now you have me obsessing about this! . Display size has me concerned. Most current cell phone displays are too small - but I have 50+ yo eyes. What I saw of the iPhone on TV looked like it might be acceptable. An external display adds to the cost and complexity. I think you would be better off making use of the installed display. Of course, an external monitor should be an easy add-on. If you do repackage the unit (I would avoid it, if possible), it doesn't matter. . I would think that it would be fairly easy to talk enough cell phone retailers into collecting old re-purposable cell phones (RCPs) to make it worthwhile. Good PR and they can run a "We'll buy your RCP for $10" campaign every now and then to remind ppl how nice they are. . I think the trick will be how to convince the manufacturers that it is to their benefit to make it. Will enough ppl be willing to pay for it? I don't think it's reasonable to expect the manufacturers to absorb the cost. How many ppl even want a hand-held PC, much less are willing to pay for it? . Get a Bono (Gates? Jobs?) to promote RCPs. Tap the ppl that may not want/need a computer in their cell phone, but would be willing to pay a few dollars more to do a good deed. Especially if they could flaunt it. :) . Organization is the problem. I certainly don't have the skills/resources and I'm guessing, since you haven't done it already, that you don't either. . Find someone that knows cell phone engineering and manufacturing. Probably won't find that person here. Is it as easy as I think or not? What will it cost? With this information, you can approach an organization/individual with the resources to make it happen. . Good luck. If you need some help, I'm willing to spend a few hours doing what I can.

The display size issue is one that would actually take some effort, but I think it would be doable. Looks like current cell phone displays top out at about qvga (320x240), more commonly 176 x 220 (RAZR.) But like the display card in your computer, there's no HUGE reason that the display controller and interface can't be made to support higher than the actual display that happens to be connected. This could be aided by lack of color; the same number of transmitted bits that support QVGA at 256 colors per bit would support a B&W ePaper display with much higher resolution, and I can imagine the firmware hacks in each side of the display controller that would make it work.

The big problem is political, sort of. Manufacturers don't want to open up their internal design to hacking (even hacking of the good sort, but open is open.) (and they seem to be pretty good at keeping secrets. Otherwise cell phone hacks would be all over, I would think, yet we're lucky to be able to derive information on
just a display or Just a camera They don't want the support burden of a product with an extended lifetime, and that applies to the semiconductor vendors that make the parts and modules for cell phones too. The surplus market is relatively full of cell phone displays that are no longer used, no longer manufactured, and were never publicly documented, for example. That's sad, but then documentation and standardization and support of such a thing is HARD. Really.

> The display size issue ... . I don't see anything insurmountable, but I really don't know. . > Manufacturers don't want to open up their internal design ... . What would it take to design/build/sell an open-source phone? . If the chips are standard, you might be able to use something similar to the things you clamp onto a DIP chip to hook up a logic probe (hits all pins at once) to hijack the chip. . > They don't want the support burden ... . I see your point, but who would expect them to support a discarded product? . . . I don't believe this will be economicly feasible unless done on a large scale (or you have a sponsor with real deep pockets). . . If you're really serious about doing this, I'd start recruiting ppl that understand design/manufacture and ppl that can start/run a large organization. If you can convince the manufacturers that they can make money off the project, they'll do everything for you. . . You seem to be smarter than the average bear; get some discarded cell phones, data sheets, 'scope, etc and see what you can figure out - it may be a lot easier than we think.

> but who would expect them to support a discarded product? . Nevermind. Who would sue a restaurant after spilling coffee in their lap?

Some with burn-related medical expenses they couldn't afford, or get assistance from the restaurant's insurance/owners without suing. You should look into that case in more detail; the whole thing (including the sociology behind how people remember it and how it was reported) is ... interesting. But yeah, if an OEM were to build a supposedly reusable phone, and then after it had been discontinued as a phone the groups that were re-using it discovered what they thought were bugs in the reusable portions, they would expect some level of support ("20 million people paid $10 extra each to buy a reusable phone from you, and now it's not reusable after all! Call a lawyer!")

. OK. Maybe a poor example. I think we both agree that ppl's unreasonable expectations need to be considered. Shouldn't be too hard to handle with a little forethought and a good lawyer. . . BTW, I don't think that a person's financial situation affects another's liability.

the blur between PCs and Cellphones
Midrange Cellphone teardown report
More cellphone teardowns

A cellphone is rather difficult to reverse-engineer; you're talking about multi-die chips in high density BGA packages, all packed into very small spaces. Better people than I make their living doing stuff like this, and sometimes all they can say is "unknown function multi-die chip from unknown supplier." Moreover, by the time you figure anything useful out, that model is no longer manufactured, or the design has been cost-reduced and is now different.

To make reuse possible on an industrial scale would require assistance from the OEMs...

. OIC. That does make things a tad more difficult. ;) I keep forgetting that 8- and 14-pin DIPs aren't used much anymore. LOL I had to look up BGA! . . OK. So how do you/we convince the manufacturers? . Enough market to support a separate line of open-source RCPs? . . I definitely believe this deserves, at the very least, more study. If you could get an NGO/charity/etc (or more than one) to take up the cause, the manufacturers just might listen. . This would be something good to get the carriers involved in. They have the resources to co-ordinate a project this size (especially if they form a consortium). Excellent PR.

> (tell me an Apple iPhone wouldn't be an adequate replacement for an OLPC...) . I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that an iPhone version of MacOS is on the drawing board; quite possibly sitting in a warehouse, just waiting for the rollout.

I thought iPhones ran some version of MacOS out-of-the-box; in fact, the fact that some version of MacOS had been ported to a relatively deeply embedded processor for the iPhone was one of the more interesting parts of the initial announcement...

> I thought iPhones ran some version of MacOS out-of-the-box . They may - I haven't paid that much attention. I figured they'd make a big deal out of it and I would have heard about it if they were. (what a sentence!)

> What would it take to make a cellphone reusable as the core of a general purpose computer?
. Well, since most cell phones are GPCs (as you pointed out yourself), it should boil down to the ability to be reprogrammed.
. I'm no engineer (nor have I played one on TV), but spreading development costs over 400K cell phones per day (I'm amazed; would have guessed closer to 4K) make that pretty close to zero per unit. Most of the functions are already there (or can be obtained with trivial mods). I'm guessing that adding "slots" (physical connectors) for RAM/etc would be the expensive part; many cell phones already have USB, which allows separate kybrd/monitor/etc and general communications abilities.
. Looks to me like all you have to do is convince the manufacturers to do it. ;)