In the summer of 2019, the Blocks modular smartwatch finally joined the sprawling Kickstarter boneyard. It's a wasteland littered with products that willingly took a supportive and trusting public’s money, then failed to uphold their end of the bargain.
However, Blocks is a little different to many of the fly-by-night, ill-conceived campaigns that were Kickstarted, then kicked into touch.
This concept felt like a big deal – perhaps the most important crowdfunded wearable since Pebble. Arguably, it’s something that could benefit consumers, and indeed the planet, even today.
Going for a run? You could slide in a GPS and/or heart rate module to the central Core.
Going to be away for a few days? Hot swap for an extra battery.
Need cellular connectivity? Yep, there was a module for that.
The idea was you never had to buy a new watch, just update the components. The company made this sustainability part of its selling point.
So, in late 2015, shortly after the release of the limited first-gen Apple Watch, London-based Team Blocks raised $1,613,874 (£1.255m) from 5,063 people, eager to see the vision fulfilled. But it didn't take long for the warning signs to emerge that the product might never appear.
What happened next
The company behind the “the last smartwatch you’ll ever need” entered liquidation in August 2019 without fulfilling the vast majority of backer rewards. The money is gone. A statement from the liquidators attributed failings to “a series of circumstances beyond their control.”
They are (briefly) as follows:
Late 2016: Blocks lost its supplier (in which $1m had been invested), and a software partner that had been acquired by Google. It was subsequently delayed.
Late 2017: Secondary partners and lower production costs enabled Blocks to get 500 units shipped to backers.
March 2018: Blocks revealed it was skint, having spent $2.8 million on R&D. The $1.6m from backers and additional capital from venture was gone and the company began to focus on industrial clients in the hope of raising more capital to fulfil backers’ rewards.
May 2019: Another potential production partner backed out. And all remaining inventory was destroyed in a fire.
August 2019: This is the note the company send the company sent out to backers in August this year, explaining the journey was over. The liquidators were called in and those who backed the project can make a filing for compensation.
We approached Blocks for an interview, in the hope of receiving some introspection on the mistakes made and what they could have done differently. One of the founders agreed to do so via email, but did not offer comment on pointed questions. They clearly believed it was indeed, beyond their control.
So, we went to a group of people more willing to talk – the backers.
Some are justifiably angry at the perceived carelessness with their cash, others are philosophical.
Some have become close through the Blocks appreciation society Facebook community, which has become more of a support group in recent times. Mainly these folks are just bummed they didn’t get their cool modular smartwatch. Many, like beta tester Joe Hays, even have some sympathy for the company.
Pity, anger and everything in between
“My opinion of the company is one of pity,” he told Wareable in a recent IM chat. “I truly believe every member of the Blocks team believed in the project and wanted to spark a revolution that would save the planet from wasteful, exploitative, planned obsolescence. These were honest people who tried their hardest.” That being said, he believes “all of the pitfalls of this project could have been avoided,” with better advance planning and some business savvy at the help.
It’s a sentiment echoed by another beta tester, engineer Allun Roberts, who remarked the founders lacked the necessary experience to see the product through. In this case co-founders Serge Didenko and Alireza Tahmaseb were just students at Imperial College London.
He told us: “I appreciate they got ripped off by Chinese manufacturers, but overall it was a project run by university students that happened to gain some traction in the wider world.”
Zsolt Menyhárt still wears the watch and three modules he received, added: “They were young and (I could say) naïve. Their trusted partners left them. Maybe they needed to be stricter with contracts, but if the first manufacturer was able to finalise prototypes this story would have a very different end.”
For Kate R. Kramer, who pledged $250 to the campaign and pre-paid another $80 for four modules, sympathy was in short supply. She said: “I think I failed myself in thinking it was possible. I feel like a chump. I do have some small amount of empathy for the people involved - it sucks to be hated – but these people need to understand why they shouldn't enter into the tech space again.”
When asked what Blocks should have done differently, Rik van der Schalie said: “Judging by what we have heard, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious, leading to scope creep.”
Blocks, at least, seemed sympathetic to this point of view. When asked what he would tell founders travelling the same path, founder Didenko intimated the lack of experience the team had in bringing a product to market was a contributing factor.
He said: “Keep your first product as simple as possible and surround yourself with a select few advisors that have done this before, whether they are big names from your particular sector or industry, or other startups that have gone through the process you are about to embark on.”
The good, the bad and the work-in-progress
Of the watches that did make it to beta testers and backers, the experience was mixed. Some had faith the company would get there in the end, some were mightily unimpressed. We’ll never know for sure whether Blocks could have cut the mustard as a viable consumer product.
“I’m still in love with the design,” says Zsolt Menyhárt. “I love how the blocks are interchangeable, but still support a solid connection. The build quality of the demo unit is good, but there was a ton of opportunity to improve software; both on the device and the companion app.”
Allun Roberts said his beta model (pictured), received in February 2017, as “amazing” aside from wildly unpredictable battery life.
Kate R. Kramer received her watch in April 2018, which was essentially the closest the company got to shipping a finished product. She said it only “fulfilled only the most basic requirement of a smartwatch” and “disliked that it looked nothing like the promo video and that it fitted poorly. Where had the company spent the $2.5m plus? It certainly hadn’t been used on materials.”
Joe Hays, who was also an ambassador for the company, as well as a backer, added: “The core felt extremely solid, even compared to my Moto 360, which is still my favourite smartwatch in terms of build quality. The connectors were the first thing to break.”
Is the modular dream dead?
Those who backed the watch believed (or were convinced) the future of tech was modular. The ability to individually customise the experience, to be able to upgrade ageing components without the environmental wastefulness of buying an entirely new gadget, was key.
However, it probably didn’t help Blocks – or its backers – when one particularly large and influential entity, stopped believing.
In late 2016, Google announced it was halting Project Ara; the planned modular smartphone with plug-and-play components that could be switched and rearranged.
That put a dampener on the modular possibilities, at a time when Blocks was deeply embroiled in production issues.
“I believe there will always be a market for modular technology,” says Joe Hays, who backed the project in his junior year of high school (aged 16-17).
“I have my doubts it will ever go mainstream, which saddens me. There will always be a passionate community of technology enthusiasts who want to make their technology truly theirs, all it would take to make a modular product marketable is a robust, open, exciting, and inviting platform.”
Blocks told us that “even as Google decided to end their work on modularity, the vision behind the project still remained relevant.” However, there’s no doubt Google’s exit brought momentum for the sector to a grinding halt.
“The fact there hasn't been another modular smartwatch released in the years since Blocks was announced is proof that there's no market for one,” said Blocks burnee Kate R. Kramer.
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