Are Modular Phones The Next Big Thing?
Many smartphone users and pundits complain that we have reached “Peak Phone” already. The form factor, size, and features of a smartphone vary only in insignificant ways from one make and model to another. Apple is struggling to generate excitement with every new version of the iPhone. Samsung, HTC, and other Android smartphones are by and large indistinguishable. But there is a new concept in phone design that could change all that…
What Are Modular Phones?
This stagnation in smartphone innovation is a great disappointment for technophile consumers, and a big marketing problem for phone manufacturers who need to give consumers a really big reason to upgrade a $400 phone every two years.
But recently, a new trend in phone design has excited both buyers and vendors.
Starting with the iPhone, smartphones have been “uni-body” designs, purposefully integrated so tightly that it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace or upgrade a single component such as memory, processor or speakers. The iPhone’s battery is even soldered to the motherboard, so a typical consumer cannot replace it! This restrictive design strategy is under attack from a handful of “modular” smartphones.
A modular phone is made of individual components that can be replaced or upgraded easily. Modularity aims to reduce electronics waste, lower repair costs, and increase customer satisfaction by allowing greater customization.
A modular phone’s most important component is its “main board,” analogous to a PC’s motherboard. To it one can attach components and peripherals such as batteries, antennas, GPS processors, graphics displays, speakers, cameras, and so on. The connections to the main board are made without soldering; typically, components just snap together. The result is flexible, economical, and customizable.
The first modular phone to hit the market was the FairPhone, which I wrote about in June, 2015. It was released in December, 2015, and is now on version 2. It’s initial cost is approximately $600, but its modularity should save money and extend the phone’s lifespan significantly.
Other Modular Phone Vendors
The G5 by LG Electronics, released in April, 2016, is modular to some extent. The bottom portion of the phone’s chassis comes off at the press of a button, revealing the battery and a slot for what LG calls “Friends.” Currently, there are only two Friends. The LG Cam Plus module ($69) includes an extended-life battery, a handgrip for steadier photos, and buttons for zoom, focus, shutter, and other camera functions. The other Friend is the Hi-Fi Plus, a 32-bit digital-to-audio converter (DAC) that improves the quality of audio on the phone. It features its own headphone jack, speaker, and USB-C charging port. Its price, including high-end Bang & Olufsen earphones, is around $200. The retail price of the G5 is nearly $700, but carrier subsidies and financing make it more affordable. The G5 is offered by AT&T, Verizon, T-mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. It can be purchased at retailers including Best Buy and B&H.
Modular phones “in the works” include Google’s Project Ara, a phone that looks like it’s built from Lego blocks. The Ara’s chassis contains a fully functional Android smartphone plus six slots for versatile modularity. Slide any Ara module into any slot and “it just works.” Google will make developer kits available in the Fall of 2016, expecting third-party developers of hardware and software to come up with amazing modules.
The PuzzlePhone from Finnish company, PuzzlePhone, is just a Web page full of specs and buzzwords at this time. It was supposed to launch in 2015, but it is still in development.
I believe that modular smartphones are the Next Big Thing in mobile devices. Consumers want the flexibility, cost savings, and personalization that modularity promises. Despite OEMs efforts to hold customers hostage and helpless with sealed, uni-body designs, the consumer is still king.
Do you find the modular phone concept appealing? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 3 Jun 2016
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Are Modular Phones The Next Big Thing? (Posted: 3 Jun 2016)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved