Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Modular smartphone

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Modular smartphone

A modular smartphone is a smartphone made using different components that can be independently upgraded or replaced in a modular design. This aims to reduce electronic waste, lower repair costs and increase user comfort.

Contents

The most important component is the main board, to which others (such as cameras or batteries) are attached. These are packaged in easy-to-remove modules which can be replaced as needed without having to rework the soldering. Components could be obtained from open-source hardware stores.

History

Desktop computers that used tower cases could easily swap parts such as hard drives, memory, and graphics cards. Among early mobile devices, the Handspring Visor PDA had a Springboard Expansion Slot which could give it the capabilities such as a phone, GPS, a modem, or a camera - but only one at a time. The Israeli startup Modu created a phone+screen core that could be added to various cases that gave the device features such as a keyboard or camera; the company failed and sold its patents to Google in 2011.

Phonebloks was the first modular smartphone concept to attract widespread attention. Later in 2013, Motorola Mobility, then a subsidiary of Google, unveiled Project Ara, a concept for a modular smartphone inspired by the Phonebloks concept. The project was retained by Google when it sold Motorola to Lenovo, and underwent further development.

In late 2014, the Finnish tech startup Circular Devices Oy announced the PuzzlePhone project, with phones that can be personalized at both operating system and hardware levels. It has received the support of Fraunhofer IZM and was scheduled for release in 2015. However, the release of PuzzlePhone has been pushed to 2017 due to missing funding.

During 2015, the Dutch social enterprise Fairphone developed the Fairphone 2, the first publicly available modular smartphone which was released to sale in December of that year.

In 2016, two manufactuers unveiled phone lines with modular accessory systems. LG Electronics unveiled its LG G5 smartphone, which allows add-on modules to be installed by removing its "chin" and battery, and attaching the battery to an accessory that is then re-inserted into the phone. LG unveiled camera grip and audio enhancement accessories as part of the launch of the device. Motorola later unveiled the Moto Z, which allows the installation of case-like accessories known as "MotoMods", mounted using magnets to the rear of the device and a pogo pin connector for communication.

At the Google I/O conference in May 2015, Google unveiled a "Developer Edition" of Project Ara meant for release later in the year, now consisting of a base phone with non-modular components, and extensible with modules for adding supplemental features. Google intended to launch Project Ara for consumers in 2017. Project Ara was ultimately shelved on September 2, 2016.

Derivatives

Similar to modular smartphones, other devices such as modular smartwatches and functional (smart) cases have been envisioned. The modular smartwatch goes under the name Blocks and makes use of smart modules as links in the wristband. Two companies making smartphone cases Nexpaq and Moscase have designs similar to Project Ara (previously Phonebloks) and the Moto Z, respectively.

Challenges

Critics point out that the phone will have to have durable enough connections that a modular phone will not fall apart when dropped or put in a pocket or sat upon. Project Ara is using latches and electropermanent magnets to do this. Existing phones are highly optimized for physical space, making pluggable modules that are highly space-optimal is difficult, and configuration and regulatory approval of the radio hardware becomes more complicated. Another risk is that consumers will be overwhelmed by too many choices, or prefer pre-packaged phones. It will be unclear how viable the secondary component market would be, until products actually become available. Some critics worry about loss of control over the full hardware platform, brand erosion, consumers who make poor choice, whether separately purchased components would cost more than a pre-packaged phone would, and whether modular phones would be more prone to breakage (and thus create more e-waste). Proponents hope that the technical challenges can be overcome and that a viable market ecosystem (the hardware version of an app store) will enable finer-grained competition that will benefit consumers with better and cheaper choices.

Modular phone platforms

On sale:

  • Fairphone 2 by Fairphone
  • LG G5 by LG (the battery is the only modular component)
  • Moto Z, Moto Z Force, and Moto Z Play by Motorola Mobility
  • In development:

  • Eco-Mobius by ZTE
  • PuzzlePhone
  • Canceled:

  • Project Ara by Google
  • Vsenn by Vsenn ). The company stated in June 2015: "Vsenn is licensing its technology to another brand. We tried everything to remain independent but we couldn't fight the financial pressure."
  • Phonebloks by Phonebloks
  • Fonkraft by Fonkraft
  • References

    Modular smartphone Wikipedia


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