Are Modular Phones The Next Big Thing?

Category: Telephony

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.

Modular Phones - The Next Big Thing?

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...

 
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Most recent comments on "Are Modular Phones The Next Big Thing?"

Posted by:

JP
03 Jun 2016

Assuming a company would adhere to a design that will be used for many years, a modular phone would be very appealing to me. Being able to buy a phone that could be easily repaired or upgraded would be a big selling point.

The planned obsolescence of many of today's smartphones is just ridiculous, in my opinion.


Posted by:

The Other Al
03 Jun 2016

Battery modular sound good in theory. However, I had an Android phone just over 3.5 years. I ordered a new battery because the old one couldn't keep the charge. Guess what? The new one was no better than the old one - my thought is that the battery is proprietary, and it was built about the same time as the phone - it had just sat on a shelf somewhere for 3.5 years, so was equally inadequate. That phone wouldn't even hold a charge for one day. I've since bought a different brand, and it seems to hold a charge for several days (although I charge it most nights.)


Posted by:

Granville Alley
03 Jun 2016

My own expectation is this idea of an upgradable modular phone will be a myth similar to the myth of the upgradeable PC. Processors change so fast and in particular the die process xxnanometers changes so fast that the parts are almost inevitably incompatible at most 2 years later.

Just look at Desktop PCs and Main Processors, every time a new processor family comes out it is using a different socket design to accommodate the millions (if not billions of additional transistors) and smaller die size allowed by utilizing a smaller scale that are part of the new smaller, faster, cooler, chip.

And every other component seems to have a similar relatively short life as "cutting edge" technology. I have been fortunate in my cycle with iPhones in being able to every two years purchase the newest iPhone with the highest current specs for about what I have been able to get from selling my now off-contract prior model. This has allowed me to stay relatively up to date (I live on the S Model or tock part of the Apple Tick-Tock development cycle).

Because AT&T has so far grandfathered my unlimited Data Plan I got with the original iPhone I am actually paying less today for unlimited data and all the voice minutes I need than when I started and have a total Net investment in iPhones of about $300 over 8 years.


Posted by:

PC
03 Jun 2016

A modular phone would be a huge selling point for me. I had a display melt down on my phone with 3 weeks left in the contract. ATT said they would charge me a $95 early termination fee for a phone I could not use. Are they kidding?

Switched immediately to a Project Fi phone and am very happy. (Thanks for the timely post on that one!) Very happy, got a good price on the phone and looks like I will be saving a decent amount on top of it. Have not noticed a loss of cell coverage either.

I would love to be able to change out the battery, add memory or upgrade a camera. Most of the time I only switch out a phone for those types of reasons. Being able to do swap outs and keep all my apps, photos and contacts intact would be a plus. I hate transferring all the files and verifying that everything is in the new phone.

Thanks for your great tips and posts.


Posted by:

Ihor Prociuk
03 Jun 2016

I think that "modularity" may be just another gimmick. The current smartphones are so popular because they bring a lot of functionality into a single unit and you can add functionality by installing apps. Modularity means that you now have to carry around a pocket full of modules just in case you want to use one. There will be a market for modular phones but it will be small in comparison to the total number of smartphones sold.


Posted by:

Bill Boogaart
03 Jun 2016

We have a Nortel 350 hanging on the wall of our kitchen. It is a modular phone. But they never offered any optional modules for it. And this was long before the company failed due to mismanagement. I doubt that this reinvention of an old idea will fly. And yes, we all have iPhones and we still have a copper landline in the house which I told my wife she can only have taken out once I'm 6 feet under.


Posted by:

Mike Davies
03 Jun 2016

Regarding battery life, modern rechargeable batteries contain a jelly which expands when it's charging and contracts while power is extracted.

A battery's anticipated longevity is measured in cycles, i.e. the number of times it can be fully discharged and recharged.

Therefore it is not good for the battery's longevity to frequently let it run completely out of juice as repeated full expansions and full contractions weaken the structure of the jelly and its inner casing.

To extend the battery's life by years, it should be kept fully charged whenever possible.

Info link here http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/how_to_prolong_lithium_based_batteries

Table 2: Cycle life as a function of depth of discharge. A partial discharge reduces stress and prolongs battery life.

Depth of Discharge. Discharge Cycles.

100% DoD 300-500

50% DoD 1200 -1500

25% DoD 2000-2500

10% DoD 3750-4700

Hope that's useful!


Posted by:

Calvin The'airedale
03 Jun 2016

I bought the Samsung Galaxy S5 just because I could swap out the SD card & battery when I wanted. Later versions ditched that option, discouraging me from upgrades. I notice that batteries that are not Samsung OEM are often much cheaper knock-offs with less charge capacity and longevity.


Posted by:

Jay R
03 Jun 2016

Oh, goodie! I am so looking forward to being part of The Modular Squad.

I actually am somewhat intrigued by the idea. On the downside, I could lose parts of the phone instead of the whole thing. ----------Maybe that would be a good thing. Who knows? Thanx, Bob.


Posted by:

Micha Reisel
03 Jun 2016

In 2007 there was an Israeli startup called Modu
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modu
with a modular phone.

They went bankrupt in 2011, but had good ideas!


Posted by:

RandiO
04 Jun 2016

I can't wait for Project Ara to be available in the U.S. I may finally buy one, if only the GPS portion was a module!!


Posted by:

Steve
04 Jun 2016

The advent of a modular phone MAY just convince me I need a mobile phone. So far I am not convinced, too pricey, low functionality for cost and poor reliability


Posted by:

CtPaul
04 Jun 2016

If you flog an animal enough it may appear to have a red spotted coat. Truth obviously is that it is simply blood from the beaten beast. That is what these modular phones sound like to me, a tortured excuse for more fools to spend more money on what was once a simple communication device - and is still primarily used for that purpose.


Posted by:

Frank
05 Jun 2016

Bob, thanks for this post. I love the concept of a modular phone. I would finally upgrade my 4-year old Samsung Galaxy. But so far, i refuse to shell out $600 bucks to get a flashlight, waterproofing, and a few other "bells & whistles" that will be out-of-style or obsolete in a two years. I'm with CtPaul in this regards. Bucks are hard to come by, but with a modular phone, I would be willing to spend $60 - $100 dollars for an upgrade that would allow my phone to stay competitve.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
05 Jun 2016

A Modular Phone would be alright with me! As it stands now, I will not get a new phone unless it has a replaceable battery!

I also want a Micro SD slot within my phone. I have a 32GB Micro SD and it holds my phone information, plus all of my music. This is why I do not like the iPhone, there isn't a battery replacement or a Micro SD slot. Bad move in my opinion.

I got a newer phone, last Fall, and I wanted an "older" phone, so I got me a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Yes, I know that the Galaxy Note 5 was out, but, you could not replace the battery and there wasn't a Micro SD slot.

I really wish the phone manufacturers would quit trying to mimic the iPhone. Those who like the iPhone rarely change to another company. I have always loved an Android phone. I like its versatility and I know how to protect myself. Yes, I use an AV program along with Malwarebytes. So far, I have not been hacked or gotten any malware.

I really do love my Galaxy Note 4. Of all the phones I have had in the past, the Note 4 is the best. :o)


Posted by:

Rutger
08 Jun 2016

According to your article on Tuesday June 7. the answer should (always) be 'No' :-)


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