Modular phones: The future is here, piece by piece

Project Ara. Pic - Wikipedia
Everything but the kitchen sink! Pic: XKCD
Everything but the kitchen sink! Pic: XKCD

If you are a billionaire, you could probably get someone to manufacture a phone exactly the way you want it — from the looks to the hardware, everything will be custom-built to your specs. And this phone will be the only one of its kind in the world.

But for the rest, the closest we can get to a custom-built phone — at a price that won’t require you to sell off a kidney — is by buying a modular device.

But what’s that?

Think of the phone as a collection of blocks, where each block delivers a particular feature such as telephony or display or processing. And you can add extra features or upgrade existing ones simply by swapping out or plugging in additional blocks. Aka, modules. For example, if you are an audiophile and want superlative sound from the phone, you could tack on a special hi-fi audio processor, sold separately. Those who don’t care so much about audio can skip this module and save money. Perhaps they would rather spend it on a powerful camera module. Or one that doubles the battery life.

Swap anything

The Google Ara concept
The Google Ara concept

Google’s now dead Project Ara actually wanted to take the idea further by allowing you to easily upgrade even the core functionality. So why buy a whole new phone when you could simply swap the processor with a newer version? Or perhaps you could upgrade the screen to a higher resolution panel when its price comes down.

The idea of modular devices was made popular in 2012 by a start-up called Phonebloks that wanted to “change how electronics are made in order to create less waste”. So the vision extends way beyond smartphones, and if it becomes a common reality, everything from our TVs to the toaster will some day become modular. Think of the money we will save as consumers, besides reducing our carbon footprint. This vision also caught the attention of Google, which teamed up with Phonebloks in October 2013, and announced Project Ara.

The rest is, well, a rather short-lived history given that Google has scrapped the project just three years later. Mind you, other players are free to pick it up and get into licensing agreements with Google.

Ups and down

As the Reuters report observes, the concept of modular devices has generated “great enthusiasm” in the tech community for its potential to prolong the lifespan of a device and reduce electronic waste. Besides, it can get more companies interested in developing an array of add-on modules.

But there are also big hurdles to cross. As this presentation on modular phones notes, there is no incentive for current manufacturers to embrace the concept — why would a Samsung or Apple sell you an upgraded module when they can make lot more money by selling you an entire phone every year or two? Also, interchangeable parts make phones bulky and expensive to produce. And with lot more manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon, quality control issues are bound to crop up. Finally, modular phones are not as structurally robust as regular phones — imagine one falling to the ground and literally shattering into a dozen odd modules!

The less ambition road

LG G5 Friends modules
LG G5 Friends modules

Which brings us to the more realistic idea of building a basic phone and supplementing it with a gaggle of modules. The two prominent examples are the LG G5 with its collection of Friends modules and the Moto Z line-up with its supporting cast of Moto Mods.

However, this idea is not new — back in 1998, a bunch of engineers quit the then-dominant PDA maker, Palm, to form Handspring. This upstart launched the Handspring Visor, which came with a SpringBoard Expansion Slot that allowed third-party manufacturers to develop plug-in modules and soon you had everything from GPS receivers and infra-red remote controllers to modems and MP3 players that worked with the Visor PDAs.

The Handspring Visor
The Handspring Visor

Similarly, in 2007, a mobile phone start-up called Modu worked on the idea of a basic phone into which additional “jackets” could be inserted to bring in new features. Unfortunately, the company ran out of money and folded up in 2011. Interestingly, Google picked up some of its patents for $4.9 million.

So where are we now?

At least in the case of LG, its first stab at modular phones has not panned out well — the company admits the G5 sold poorly, which even led to the firing of a few senior executives! However, it is debatable whether this was a failure of the concept or of execution. The G5 suffered from a lack of interesting Friends to play with, and availability in certain markets has been spotty. While the camera module and the Hi-Fi Plus module — developed with the help of Bang & Olufsen — were decent enough, the LG 360 VR was panned by most critics. The G5 is best thought of as a solid pioneering effort, and we expect LG to go back to the drawing board and work out the kinks.

Moto Mods
Moto Mods

Elsewhere, Lenovo seems to be faring better with the Moto Mods — at least, it has not committed the same mistakes that LG did. In particular, instead of just 3-4 modules, the company has announced 15! This covers a projector, JBL speaker module and a powerful camera add-on, among others. Moreover, developers are free to create their own mods. As Pocket-lint points out the advantage of Lenovo’s Moto Mod system is that the phone works perfectly fine without any mods and it’s still a solid metal unibody phone. “The LG G5’s removable portion, on the other hand, feels a little flimsy and has forced the company to compromise on solid design. Moto’s approach is far less intrusive and, the method of attaching a single Mod is easy and quick.” Though a current limitation is that you can add only one module at a time — so you cannot go around clicking images using the camera module while also grooving to music on the speaker module.

The future

The Guardian agrees that modular phones certainly have a bright future, but does not see them ending up in a pocket close to you in the near future. Instead, they will initially find a ready market in high-tech industries with specialised needs such as barcode scanners, infrared cameras and heart rate monitors. Another problem that will only get worse as more manufacturers enter the fray is that consumers will end up with a long list of proprietary modules that work only with a select few phones. So if the idea of modular phones is to take off, all major manufacturers will need to stick to universal standards. Which means LG Friends will have to becomes real-life friends with Moto Mods and everything else coming down the pipe.

Now, in the highly competitive smartphones market, that sounds like an uphill task.