Modular phones- The future or a dream?

With the Mobile World Congress underway at Barcelona, questions are being asked once again about modular cellphones. A modular cellphone would be a cellphone where individual components could be independently upgraded or replaced. Theoretically, your phone would essentailly be a board, to which modules like camera, screen, battery etc. are attached. These modules would have to be designed in such a way that they can be easily replaced without having to rework the soldering. In September 2013, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens conceptualised Phonebloks. The idea came to him primarily as a means to reduce electronic waste. An estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year and with the rise in use of technology in developing nations like India and China, that number is expected to go up sharply. Hakkens produced a video detailing his plan for a modular cellphone and within a couple of days, the video had gone viral, being shared around the world and articles being written on what seemed like an hourly basis. It seemed absurd to people that the idea of modular cellphones never came to anyone else.

Logically, modular phones are everything anyone could want — literally. The entire idea of a modular phone is that you can make that phone your own. No longer would you have to sacrifice features and no longer would you have to use the phrase, “I wish my phone…”. I listen to a lot of music and I like carrying my music with me offline. So conceptually, I could sacrifice some speed in order to cram in some extra memory in my modular phone. Maybe I can even switch out the inbuilt digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for a better quality one. Maybe I can even add a Amplifier module. If I’m attending a party, a rather large speaker module. The possibilities are endless. Camera lens manufacturers could make cellphone cameras that can be switched out by the user depending on usage. If you’re going on vacation and need more battery life, get rid of some storage and add some extra battery. This is the future. If everything is ideal.

Project Ara

One month later, Google announced Project Ara. Project Ara was essentially a project led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group. Project Ara hoped to create a highly customizable modular device and they announced that they woud be collaborating with Phonebloks. With the momentum Phonebloks and Project Ara had, expectations were really high. Unfortunately, that excitement seemed to fizzle out. You can come up with a million reasons why the excitement fizzled out. Humanities exceedingly short attention span foremost amongst them. But I truly believe that the reason people aren’t talking about modular cellphones as much as they should be is that cellphone manufacturers don’t want to talk about it. For Google to support modular cellphones makes sense since they’re a software company. They’ll make it through the process unscathed and will potentially expand their market exponentially. But if modular phones suceed, Cellphone manufacturers will be in for a world of hurt.

Right now, the way phone contracts work in America, most people change phones once every two years. Updated versions of cellphones release every year so there are a huge number of people who buy new phones every year. But if the idea of modular cellphones is sucessful, cellphone manufacturers will essentially turn into module manufacturers. As mentioned earlier, modular cellphones will be a board with every other element on the board being replaceable as per need and featureset required. So anytime you need to replace one element of the phone, the rest of the elements can remain as is. This is something cellphone manufacturers will not stand for since this well eat into their profits and we already know companies don’t take too kindly to that. If you really want proof that modular cellphones and Phonebloks aren’t getting a lot of support from cellphone manufacturers, just take a look at the Phonebloks website. There are currently only 3 well-known manufacturers working on modular mobile phones and the Xiaomi and ZTE are mere concepts.

I may sound overconfident but I don’t think it’s unfair to say Apple will never join Project Ara or any other Modular Cellphone project because, for better or worse, Apple is a bit of an isolationist in the tech industry. Further, they whole heartedly believe in proprietary hardware which goes against the very idea of Modular Cellphones. But the real question is, what will cellphone manufacturers like Samsung, Sony and LG do. Samsung has tried (and failed miserably) in the past to move away from the Android ecosystem by promoting their own OS. But considering the marketshare held by Android, that succeeding seems highly unlikely. Samsung can definitely focus it’s energies on SoC manufacturing for Project Ara. Samsung has historically been good at making chips as well as cameras. If I were to guess how cellphone companies would react to widespread usage of modular cellphones, I’d say that manufactuers would start selling individual modules but focus their energies on ‘module packs’ through which they’d sell their individual modules packed together so you’d be running only that companies modules. You’d still be using a modular mobile phone but all the modules you’d be using would be from one manufacturer. Something like that may not be embracing the idea of a modular phone whole-heartedly but it would still be a massive step forward in reducing e-waste and improving consumer satisfaction.

Regardless of my cynical tone, modular phones are the future. Whether corporations want them to be or not. And I’m very happy to report that there is at least one manufacturer who has come to terms with this development. LG’s latest flagship, the LG G5, might just be the first modular phone available on the market. It might not be everything we’ve dreamed of but it certainly is more than I’d hoped at this time in history. LG now provides modules you can slide in depending on what feature you’d want most. At the moment, it’s providing a Hi-Fi Plus DAC module, co-designed by Bang & Olufsen which will help you listen to up-sampled, 32-bit audio. For the photographers in the audience it has a module that is essentially a grip with a shutter button so you can click better pictures and for those who run out of battery every 2 hours, they provide a massive 4,000mAh battery module you can slide in and forget about charging. Like I said, it’s not everything we want in a modular phone but it’s a start. At some point this year, who knows, maybe a couple hours after I post this, Google will make an announcement regarding Project Ara. Over the next year or two, we’ll have a clearler idea about which companies are working on modules for modular cellphones. At some point, we’ll get a better idea about how cellphone manufacturers plan on dealing with modular cellphones and sooner, rather than later, we’ll all have our hands on a brand new modular mobile phone. And that’s how the future gets here anyway, right? One step at a time.

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