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Friday, September 09, 2016
Modular Smartphones – The End As We Know It?
smartphoneis acell phonethat can be upgraded or customized through the
attachment or replacement of discrete components called modules. This aims to reduceelectronic
waste, lower repair costs and increase user affordability and flexibility.
These are packaged in easy-to-remove modules which can be replaced as needed
without having toreworkthe soldering. Components could be
obtained from the open-source
Ideas behind Modular Smartphones
The earlier desktops used the tower cases
where one can easily swap or upgrade components like Graphics cards,
Hard-disks, Processors etc. to further customise the systems to enhance the
computing and the processing speeds. Among the earlier mobile devices, theHandspring VisorPDA had aSpringboard Expansion Slotwhich could give it the capabilities
such as a phone, GPS, a modem, or a camera - but only one at a time.
The first of its kind to seek the limelight
was Phonebloks – the first commercially released modular handheld device. Then
many of the computing giants has been working on the Modular smartphones
concept including LG, Motorola and Google.
Developments in the category
Last year LG dropped the jaws of all the
tech-savvies when they announced the concept of LG G5 – the first modular
smartphone of its range. The Modules available ranged from LG 360 VR- a VR
goggle, LG360 CAM, LGRolling
Bot-a companion device that rolls like a
ball while capturing images and videos with its embedded 8MP camera, H3
by B&OPLAY-a set of
high-end earphones, LGSmart Controller- device that allows users to easily control certain drones. There
are many such modules which can be used to extend the functionality of the
device with additional customization.
Motorola has also been working on a similar project Moto Z
and is expected to be released this year. But perhaps the most discussed among
all the developments going across the globe in this category is that of Project
Ara- The project under development by Google. The
project was originally headed by theAdvanced
Technology and Projectsteam
withinMotorola Mobilitywhile it was a Google subsidiary.
Google retained the ATAP group when selling Motorola toLenovo, and it was placed under the
stewardship of theAndroid; Ara
was later split off as an independent operation.
Project Ara was intended to consist of
hardware modules providing common smartphone components, such as processors,
displays, batteries, and cameras, as well as modules providing more specialized
components, and "frames" that these modules were to be attached to.
This design would allow a device to be upgraded over time with new capabilities
and upgraded specifications without requiring the purchase of an entire new
device, providing a longer lifecycle for the device and potentially reducingelectronic waste.
But to everyone’s surprise, Google pulled
the plug on Project Ara funding. On September 2, 2016, Google announced that
Project Ara had been officially cancelled in an effort to "streamline the
company's hardware efforts.” The Project had already been delayed in the past
in its 2005 commercialization deadline. Earlier this year, the project was again
delayed to 2017. Additionally, the Ara team had announced that Ara
would pivot from fully modular to having a fixed CPU, GPU, antennas,
sensors, battery, and display. After that announcement, Ara was watered
down so much it barely had a reason to exist. Finally on September 2, Google
decided to Kill Project Ara.
The quote about "streamlining the
company's hardware efforts" points to Google's new hardware
division as being behind the change in strategy. The division, with
former Motorola President Rick Osterloh at the helm, has been tasked with
combining Google's hardware efforts into a single portfolio.
LG has also similar future plans for G5 as
G5 failed to impress its customers. Experts suspect that these instances may
discourage the other developers from further working on it. The modular
smartphone concept seems to be fading slowly, with the Lenovo owned Motorola
being the only one still in the market. A new module for Motorola’s Moto Z
smartphone was announced last week, by Hasselblad, but that also seems
The development of Modular smartphones is challenge in
itself. Developing such devices is particularly challenging, because of issues
with size, performance and price.
Here are the top seven
reasons why it's so difficult to develop smartphones that let users swap out
the processor, camera and storage options:
The biggest technical challenge
to building a modular smartphone is the underlying architecture, the structural
frame and data backbone of the device, which makes it possible for all the
modules to communicate with each other. It has to be so efficient that the
overall performance doesn't take a hit and still be cheap and frugal with power
Last year, the Project
Ara team posted and then retracted a Twitter message that a prototype had
failed a drop test. But it's clear that keeping the modules in place is a
challenge. In the message that wasn't retracted, Project Ara said it's
developing a new and better solution. It also remains to be seen how the
modules and connectors will be able to handle the wear-and-tear of long-term
While modular design
gives users more flexibility it also comes with several drawbacks. Smartphones
have become more svelte thanks to tighter integration between components, so
the addition of chassis that needs to be quite sturdy adds to the overall size
and weight. Vendors have to find the best possible balance between durability
and size, which won't be easy.
However, the size likely
won't be a deal breaker. Recent flagship smartphones from the likes of LG
Electronics, Motorola Mobility and HTC aren't very light or small for their
respective screen sizes and they still leave little to be desired.
The communication between
the modules uses more power than in a traditional smartphone. What
the eventual power tax will be remains to be seen. It was one of the main challenge
of Ara team.
The testing part of the
development process is more complicated and time-consuming for modular phones.
Instead of having to ensure that one hardware configuration works, vendors have
to make sure that all permutations work equally well.
A more complicated
development process and less product integration will have an effect on
pricing, as well. The Project Ara FAQ states that it’s much too early to
tell what phones will cost, but the bill-of-materials cost of a basic,
entry-level Ara device is in the $50 to $100 range. The smartphone market has
become very price competitive, so if modular smartphones are to succeed, the
extra cost for manufacturing them has to be as small as possible.
Do consumers want one?
Spending money on
developing modular smartphones is at the end of the day very brave since
there are no guarantees they will succeed technically or commercially. There
will always be tech enthusiasts who will buy them. But those customers aren't
enough to make them financially viable in the long term, and convincing the
large group of consumers who simply want a smartphone that just works will be
Future of Modulations – Revolution or Doomed?
After the death of Project Ara, the future
of the Modular phone category hangs on the line.
Reuters says that while "Google will not be releasing the
phone itself," licensing the technology to third parties is still an
option. Will anyone dare to pick up the modular smartphone torch when even
Google has failed?
But the market is promising. A fair vision
and estimate tells us that in 2017 the number of Android users who will opt for
a modular smartphone will be 10% and around 30% in 2018, which is roughly
equals to 140 million and 450 million respectively.After 2018
the new market factors are expected to sprout. This will further drive the
demand for various categories of modules. The forecast is getting more complex,
still it remains intriguing.
Recently, a research on the smartphone
market was conducted by a respected research and analysis company IDC.According to IDC, due to high speculations and buzz on the
web, it is likely that many Indians will think of grabbing one for themselves.
But, the chances of it creating heat waves isn’t likely because the concept of
the modulation and customization is entirely new and people treat new concepts
with caution. They would probably expect their highly tech savvy friends to get
one, and later buy one for themselves depending on their experience. Going down
on these, we concluded that only around 2% of the Android users in India would
lay their hands on the modular phone in the first year.
It will be interesting
to see how the modular phones will fair in the current market.
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of DoT as a whole.