The common complaint heard these days with gadgets – and smartphones in particular – is that there’s a lack of true innovation. Today’s phones look more alike than ever, monoliths carved out of glass and aluminum. Due to compact hardware that allows them to be thinner and lighter, many phones have lost even basic features, such as a replaceable battery and even the 3.5mm headphone jack in recent times.
What if, like the good old desktop computer, other gadgets also consisted of easily pluggable components, which could be replaced individually, instead of replacing the entire product every few years? That’s the premise behind modular hardware, but although people keep trying to make it happen, there’s little reason to believe it will.
The idea is not new, but has certainly evolved over time. By 1999, Handspring was manufacturing personal digital assistants with a Springboard expansion slot, used to attach modules that added functionality such as GPS, camera, RFID, or barcode reader. Sony Ericsson phones from 2002, such as the T68i and T300, were also compatible with a removable accessory that added a camera to these phones.
Next came Modu, a mobile phone released in 2007 that brought the idea of easily interchangeable “jackets”, which would change the look of the phone or add additional functionality, or both. For example, there was a “Boom Box” jacket which added stereo speakers, a “storage jacket” which added a male USB port to connect directly to a computer.
It even partnered with Micromax to bring the modular phone to India in 2010, which had a “camera jacket”.
But all of these additional features were quickly incorporated into smartphones as features like cameras, GPS, stereo speakers, etc. have grown in importance over time. In 2011, Modu shut down and sold its patents to Google.
In 2013, the idea of modular hardware caught the eye again, as a concept called Phonebloks went viral, and many rallied around a modular phone future. Motorola, then owned by Google, even acknowledged the concept when it unveiled Project Ara, finally giving modular phone fans their brightest glimmer of hope.
Project Ara was essentially a real-life version of Phonebloks, where endoskeletal frames called “endos” held everything from the display module to those containing the battery, chipset, camera, and more. Backings are available in three sizes – mini, medium and large. Apart from being able to upgrade the phone’s basic hardware at any time, there was also talk of specialized modules such as medical devices, pico projectors, night vision sensors, game controllers, and more.
After years of iterations and a failed first boot in 2014, Project Ara in 2016 has changed significantly, with many core components such as the battery, screen, and system-on-chip becoming non-replaceable. Ultimately, the project was killed off at the end of that year.
Around the same time as Project Ara, there were two other projects that took a slightly different approach to modularity. Instead of replacing each component with a new one to add functionality, the idea was to make it easier to repair and create positive social change.
Amsterdam-based Fairphone began work in 2013 and has produced two phones, the most recent of which (Fairphone 2) was given a 10/10 repairability score by iFixit, with spares readily available for purchase on its website. As of today, the Fairphone 2 sports an older Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip made in 2014 and runs Android 5.1 Lollipop, which was released the same year as the chipset. It can be pre-ordered today for 529 Euros (roughly Rs. 37,000), although it doesn’t seem like a good buy, to say the least.
Another Finland-based company, called PuzzlePhone, in 2014 made a product with three easily replaceable parts – dubbed the brain, spine and heart. The brain consisted of essential parts such as the processor, RAM, internal storage, and cameras; the spine had the display; and the heart contained the battery. On its blog, the company shared that due to financial issues it was unable to ship the phones in 2016, although it is still trying to ship this year.
While attempts like Project Ara were closer to the true modular phone dream, LG and Motorola made more subtle attempts in 2016, with the LG G5 and Moto Z respectively. The LG G5 had a removable battery module, which could be replaced with accessories called “LG Friends”. These included a pro-camera module and a DAC made by Bang and Olufsen. The Moto Z had magnetically locked “Moto Mods”, which ranged from camera-centric accessories made by Hasselblad, to speakers and batteries.
Effective today, LG would remove the modular functionality from the G5 successor. Motorola’s next phone could also ditch mods, though at least the Moto Z is expected to continue mod support in next year’s model.
Modular isn’t limited to the smartphone category either – a company called Blocks launched its Kickstarter campaign in October 2015 to create a smartwatch with modules that could be paired together as part of the wrist strap. Last I heard, shipments of the product had been delayed more than once, eventually pushed back to December 2016. It’s already January 2017 and there seems to be no word on progress.
Interest in modular devices was also evident at this year’s CES 2017 – where Intel announced the Compute Card, a credit card-sized standard for plug-and-play computing hardware, which can be easily replaced in devices like smart fridges, smart kiosks, security camera setups, etc.
Similarly, Xiaomi said that the hardware of its Mi TV 4 (presumably, the system-on-chip) would be upgradable after it became obsolete after a few years, without having to change the whole TV.
These ideas sound interesting, but even a cursory reading of the history of modular attempts is enough to make you cynical. If you’ve read all of the documented attempts to make modular gadgets, you’ll want to take anything with the words “modular” in it with a pinch of salt in the future.
No matter how much fans want a world where their gadgets are easily upgradeable like desktop computers, there are physical, technological, and economic limitations that have prevented it from becoming mainstream.
For example, can the individual modules be small and strong enough that the overall size of a modular smartphone is comparable to the dimensions and durability of a typical smartphone today? For the moment, this is not the case. And what happens when users have the freedom to upgrade individual components that may not work well with the rest of the setup? What if a hypothetical 4K display module or dual-camera setup were installed on a phone whose processing power wasn’t up to the task? You will need to upgrade other modules to support the display. Then wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy a new phone instead?
Then comes the question of compatibility – remember that when you install a new graphics card in a computer, you have to install the drivers provided by the manufacturer? Will manufacturers of modular components support all fragmented versions of Android in use by making their components compatible with all of them?
Then comes the economic question – will manufacturing, selling and supporting these modules be a profitable business? Can the modules be cheap enough to be affordable for most consumers? You can buy a good smartphone for well under Rs. 10,000 today – can these modular components offer competitive prices?
Finally, comes the issue of interoperability. None of the examples above had interoperable modules with other manufacturers. In a desktop computer, a graphics card made by Zotac works with a motherboard made by Asus, because the PCIe slot is standardized. Unfortunately, this is not the case with modular gadgets (at least so far) because a standard is not implemented by several manufacturers.
Manufacturers have spent many decades trying to answer these questions. Obviously (and unfortunately) they haven’t been able to make a significant impact yet, and it doesn’t look like there will be one anytime soon.