Truth about modular smartphones

First things first
What is a module?
Each of a set of standardized parts or independent units that can be used to construct a more complex structure, such as an item of furniture or a building…or a smartphone.
Modular smartphone?
According to Wikipedia,
“A modular smartphone is a smartphone made using different components that can be independently upgraded or replaced in a modular design.”
Which is true but not entirely. In theory unlike computers, modular smartphones have the independent blocks and fixed circuit base to connect everything.

To put that into perspective

This is modular:

Modular

This is not:

Startup Stock Photo

Modular smartphones or phones in general are of three types:

  1. Modular- Every part can be upgraded or replaced even the essential ones.

  2. Semi-modular- Some parts can upgraded or replaced.

  3. Non-modular- Nothing can be changed or replaced.

The concept

In 2013 Phonebloks was first company to introduce the concept of modular smartphones to the world. They made a video explaining this concept and here’s the video

People went batshit crazy over this concept and this video got over 20 million views.
It consisted of a connecting base much like a breadboard and the various components which can be replaced or upgraded even the CPU.
But soon the buzz died down and not much was heard from the company after that. Later that year, Google partnered with Phonebloks and introduced “Project Ara”.
That changed everything.

Why modular smartphones?

Lets just say when you buy a smartphone the market as a whole is made to work with that generation of phones. The market means entire app industry and hardware accessories and since most of us are not Ambanis we don’t buy a new smartphone every 6 months.
With modular smartphones we can replace or upgrade individual or a bunch of parts according to our needs and the ever-changing market .
For example, lets say your camera is not working  properly, instead of buying a new phone just replace the camera module or if your phone keeps lagging just change the CPU module.

For instance, this is a prototype from the earlier developments of “project Ara” in the video below.

The modules slide in and out as shown and they connect to the main base via the golden contact points. As expected this was just the concept and the actual working phone they came up with looks something like this.

This is a complete working phone and they even made a commercial at its launch at Google I/O for this in hope that developers will try this. I say developers because this is just the starting form of a new segment of phones and they are the ones that will make all the improvements and design and software changes for years until we get a fully working proper modular phone which will still be In BETA state for another couple of years. Seriously!!!

Obviously people were unhappy for a couple of reasons. Not all modules were replaceable and the ones that were replaceable were camera and the battery. Again seriously Google!!! This is more like a semi-modular phone because like the original concept, now project Ara doesn’t let you swap the CPU, GPU, RAM and even the speakers and the screen are fixed… WTF! Jumping the bandwagon or more like a bragging shit a company with a stupid face for a logo made a smartphone last year, mass-produced it and called it modular.

This is LG G5:
LG G5
As a smartphone this is an amazing one but for it to be called modular it has replaceable modules only for battery.
In truth the G5 is barely modular because except for the replaceable battery the entire phone is a unibody design which means it is seal tight shut. Kudos for the dual camera though!

Here’s another one from Lenovo/Motorola called Moto Z.
Moto Z
Lenovo showcased this concept in the form of a developer kit at their annual event called Lenovo Tech World 2016. It is essentially a back panel consisting of different types of mods for the Moto Z. This too is not proper modular. For us, the users, this concept of modular phones is groundbreaking, but not so much for the manufacturers. The problem with current state of modular phones is even if a company makes a proper modular phone we still have to rely on the modules provided by the company. No third-party manufacturer will make modules and neither will the company in some cases.

Most if not all the smartphone manufacturing companies rely on the smartphone to stop working after certain period of time. That is their business model and it will stay like this for a decade or so. These companies rely on new stuff coming in the market. They make a new phone for it and people will buy it. Modular smartphones diminishes this need to buy a new phone as a smartphone gets damaged over time. It means some part of the phone stops working and customers have to replace it with new one with the help of modules which is energy-efficient too!

Written by – Himanshu Bhavsar

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  • Real challenge behind modular phone will be thickness and length. I think eventually, fixed base board (CPU + GPU + Radio) with replaceable camera, screen, speakers, GPS, and sensors will be the winner.

    • We too are expecting these changes. Let’s wait and watch 😉

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