Where are Modular Smartphones?

Phonebloks Modular Phone Concept
By Dave Hakkens. CC BY-SA 3.0

When Google announced Project ARA, it created a buzz and sparked a conversation about modular phones, but since Google I/O 16, we have not heard anything new about them from Google.

Modular Smartphones consists of different hardware modules for different functions like WiFi, Bluetooth, CPU, RAM, etc. assembled together on the main board, in a way that any single module can be changed for increasing the functionality or quality without having to purchase a brand new smartphone.

In the case of Project ARA, it was supposed to have a frame with basic functionalities of a phone, with slots available so that a user can add modules to increase functionality or quality. It means that smartphones made under Project ARA could have been used without adding external modules also.

With modular smartphones, if a person wants to want to listen to music, then he can add a speaker modules with superior sound quality, or if a person wants a better quality camera then modules for just that can be added from top camera companies. Extra battery module could be added to increase battery life by hours, which would be very useful when going on a trip.

Normally in phones, everything comes in a bundle of a specification which is set by the manufacturer. This means that even if there is something which is not wanted or needed by an individual, it will be included in the phone and will be charged for. Same is not the case with modular phones, which will mean cost reduction because a person will buy only the modules necessary for his requirements. For ex. if a person does not want a good camera then he does not need to purchase an expensive camera module.

The folks at Google shelved their modular phone project codenamed Project ARA. Before Google was able to introduce modular smartphones to the market, LG launched G5  and Motorola launched Moto Mods both of them have some modular features but it could not be said that they did well commercially. Google wanted to keep the costs low for its Project ARA frames but may have realised that it was not achievable. This may have been one of the reasons leading up to the cancellation of the project.

Even if Google axed Project ARA, then also it may choose to take the technology to markets through partnerships with other companies. It is not the only project to be removed from Google’s wide-ranging portfolio as the search giant¬†recently sold robotics company Boston Dynamics company to SoftBank because Google could not find ways to generate revenues from the company.

Project ARA were to be the ultimate phone but it failed. This does not mean the end of modular phones as many other smartphone companies are already working on it. Companies like Essential Products, Motorola, LG, and many others are working to create smartphones which would have modules which could be added separately like a speaker, camera etc. These are nothing compared to what Project ARA could have been, but they keep the lid open for the devlopment of modular phones.

Biggest puzzle to crack while designing modular smartphones will be of keeping the costs low. Modules need to be designed, keeping in mind that they will have to be compatible with other modules for years, which will require collaboration and creation of standards. Also, more Research and Development is needed for the technology to mature. These factors can increase costs, which can create barriers to the further development of modular smartphones.

Fully modular smartphones are still a distant dream, but if they do become available in markets and people start using them, then it can lead to significant reduction in electronic waste which is increasingly becoming very problematic. The reduction in electronic waste will be due to the fact, that people won’t need to purchase a brand new phone if they encounter an issue, and the module responsible for that alone can be replaced.

As of now, no big innovation is coming related to modular smartphone which is going to make them mainstream, but let us hope that companies and startups will keep focusing on the technology side of this and keep innovating so that one day we may have a real modular smartphone which does not only satisfies our crave for gadgets but also helps in saving our only home i.e. The Planet Earth, by reducing electronic waste.

Below is a video by Google when Project ARA was still ongoing.

Aftab Alam

Editor at Verit Nation.