The idea of being able to build your own smartphone piece by piece has been a very promising concept that could have disrupted a trend which compels consumers to buy a new smartphone year after year, or more often that they should. The name of such revolutionary fad was modular smartphones.
Imagine spending only on updated parts whenever something better comes along instead of replacing all of the unit, all in the name of upgrade. This, in simplest terms, is what “modularity” is all about.
Upgrade what you need, everything else can be basic
We have seen this course before when we were introduced to one major difference between the modular and non-modular systems, like the PC and Mac — the ability to switch parts at a whim and the conspicuous lack thereof.
With this as the precedent, we are seeing old computers remaining—to a certain extent—competent with today’s demands, as a result of simply upgrading the individual components. It’s no surprise that dual and quad-core CPUs from a decade past still powers some of today’s household computers due to this idea. And if a specific part fails, it can simply be replaced instead of buying a whole new computer.
While the notion may sound dreamy when it comes to smartphones, it indeed happened several years back when Project Ara was announced; then an ambitious project spearheaded by Motorola. Only to be suspended by Google (then owner of Motorola), because of issues that were perceived at the time.
On paper, Project Ara has all the hallmarks of a surefire winner and whose major strength lies in piquing the interest of the many, including the masses who could not afford to make large purchases for upgrade. But as to why it was cancelled is a subject of a different discussion altogether, Project Ara remains a part of history many of us would like to not just revisit, but also revived.
Here are the reasons why:
1. Complete customization
Forget about being able to choose between one of three selections when buying a new phone (low, mid, or high-end). In the world of modularity, you can have the best of all worlds (theoretically)—or just a single world—if you can afford it.
For example, you can have the fastest and most expensive SoC available in the market and even have the choice to be modest in everything else, like the camera, RAM, storage, etc. After all, why spend a fortune on hardware components that mean little to you when you can focus on a single one that matters most, right?
In today’s non-modular industry, this level of flexibility is impossible, unless you have the technical skill to tinker with your device using aftermarket parts. You can either have everything at the low, mid, or high-end of the spectrum and be stuck on that until your buying power improves (coming from a low or mid-end device).
2. Better affordability
When you cut out the processing that is required when building a full smart device from scratch and let the consumers do it for themselves, you are significantly removing an unnecessary cost that could significantly make each component more affordable. That and the idea that the demand on each electronic part is also likely to increase, arising from the proliferation of the trend, only creates a good prospect as to the pricing on the consumers end.
Apple is a pioneer when it comes repurposing hardware from its old products in order to build newer ones. While Apple is a great example when it comes to this environmental approach, there are not many other companies who follow suit, particularly from the Android space. By making our smartphones modular, there is a potential for this issue to be mitigated as the recycling of hardware components happen in smaller, specific pieces rather than as bigger, more compact whole.
Will we ever see modular smartphones again?
Google kept Project Ara alive even after they sold Motorola to Lenovo, but it got shelved later on because of an effort to streamline the company’s hardware division.
By 2016, Motorola unveiled a semi-modular smartphone which comes with accessories (dubbed as Moto Mods) that act as a module to extend its features. It’s not really the kind of modularity most people are looking for, so it’s no surprise that it’s not doing too well, despite being in the market for a while now. As of the moment, this is the closest thing we have to a modular phone.
Last year, news broke out that Google filed a patent that’s labeled as a “modular device”. While it’s not as customizable as Project Ara with its limited number of modules, it hints that something is in the pipeline. But until Google announces something official, we should not get our hopes up just yet.
Although there’s a lot of upside in modular smartphones, there are still issues that manufacturers need to overcome in order to truly revive the concept. In our next article, we’ll discuss the challenges that come in building modular smartphones.
What do you think? Do you want to see modular smartphones in the future? Let us know in the comments section below.