Make Modular Phones Happen in 2017!

2016 is over. The tech world has been great this year! VR gaming is constantly improving (hello HTC vive), albeit slowly. Imaging technology has taken to the skies with a new range of drones available, and they’re getting ever more portable (cheers to the DJI Mavic Pro). Microsoft has also stepped up the game with the Surface Studio, Surface Pro, and Surface Book. And Google has finally released a phone that gives the iPhone a run for the money: the Google Pixel. Proper good times!

There is one thing that I have yet to see, though, and this concept has been around since 2013.

 

It’s called the Modular Phone.

If you can remember Phonebloks, this was what started the modularity movement. I’d like to thank Dave Hakkens for his nifty idea of a phone whose parts you can easily snap off and replace. It’s absolutely ingenious.

To give you a rundown of what Phonebloks is all about, take three minutes to watch the video below:

 

Modularity may be the answer to the smartphone conundrum.

What conundrum, you ask? This one.

These days, there are so many models of smartphone, with countless combinations of hardware and software features. The current trend forces you to abandon your old phone if you need a new or upgraded feature, even if your old phone still works quite well. This could mean replacing your phone every year, which is bloody costly.

Here’s another problem, and this also applies to other electronic devices. When one part breaks, most of the time you would have to replace the entire device. Sending it in for repairs would often cost almost as much as buying a new device. In effect, consumers get discouraged from having their old devices repaired. More so, spare parts are usually quite hard to find, making repairs impossible anyway. The only recourse, therefore, is buying a new one. Again, that’s a huge waste, especially if the rest of the device is just fine.

I myself have something falling under the category of “can no longer be fixed”. I have this JBL charge bluetooth speaker that I got last 2014, and it was great. The audio quality is incredible, unlike any audio device I’ve ever had. But now, the battery is dead. It used to last for more than 8 hours, but now it barely lasts one hour. When I opened up the back case, I find a bloated battery. That means it’s too dangerous to use any further, so I have no choice but to stop using the whole thing altogether. And since I cannot find a replacement battery for this model, I can no longer use it. Unless I could improvise a battery for it (but that would require a bloody lot of MacGuyvering, and I’m not trained in handling electronic components).

Phonebloks modular phone
Photo credit: Phonebloks.com

 

But if devices can be modular, then say goodbye to replacing your phone every year.

All we have to replace are individual parts. Phone getting slow? Replace the processor with a better one. Dropped the phone and shattered the screen? Just replace the LCD. Running out of space? Add more storage. Want better photos? Pop in a higher-quality camera. Need the phone to last longer? Chuck in a bigger battery. You don’t have to get a new phone for each feature you want to improve.

 

Actually, there have been some prototypes of modular phones the past few years.

 

One such thing is Google’s Project Ara

Project ara concept
Photo credit: The Verge

Its concept is having blocks that you can easily slide into the back of the phone. The blocks contain different components – battery, camera, processor, speakers, etc. This was quite a welcome development at the time, and there was much hype surrounding it. Google even planned to sell Ara units first to Puerto Rico, as a pilot test. But sadly we won’t be seeing any of it. Just in September of this year, Google decided to suspend the project, considering the project “too costly to make modular phones a reality”.

Others are also saying that modular phones present a huge software problem. Different hardware components require different code to run on a system, and so manufacturers would have to provide Google with the code necessary to make their components compatible with Ara. Jerry Hildenbrand of Android Central writes,

Phones and other small electronic things that use embedded hardware are pretty specific when it comes to the software that powers it. Writing the software and optimising the code for a very specific set of components is mandatory. You have limited storage and limited power so you’re forced to use both very efficiently. Writing the software so that it can support more than one part for a single function would make that very difficult.

This is the biggest hurdle, especially when you have components coming from different manufacturers, as Dave Hakkens envisioned. But Hildenbrand further says it isn’t impossible to do that, though. It’s just something that has never been done before, so it presents a big challenge for hardware and software makers alike.

For now, to remedy this issue, there should be one phone company that manufactures all the components and makes them all available to users as well.

Thankfully, there is.

 

Meet the Fairphone

Fairphone 2
Photo credit: shop.fairphone.com

And this has already hit the market. They even have a second iteration already, aptly named the Fairphone 2. The company who made Fairphone also launched in 2013, the same year as Dave Hakkens went public with Phonebloks.

The idea behind Fairphone, first and foremost, is using ethically-sourced materials. What does this mean? Well, ever heard of blood diamonds? Those things come from areas where there are intense civil wars because of such resources. And if civil war isn’t the problem, it’s the inhumane working conditions of the miners. Electronics companies need these resources, but they usually don’t care where the resources come from.

This problem is what Fairphone wants to solve. The company aims to source materials from conflict-free zones, and to implement proper working conditions for miners, assemblers, and everyone working to manufacture and distribute the phones.

Their second selling point is freely available spare parts. This solves the problem I mentioned earlier: This time, one company makes all the components, and it makes those parts available for users to buy. Since all of the parts came from Fairphone, compatibility is certain.

This also means that if only one part of your phone is broken, you only have to replace that part and nothing else. With Fairphone, each and every part is available, from the screen down to the screws. Better for the user, and better for the environment as well. There will be much lesser electronic waste as a result of people replacing their phones all the time.

 

But even the fairphone isn’t perfect

One obvious letdown here is the price. At €530 (a little less than PHP28,000) for the base model of the Fairphone 2, it certainly is expensive for its specs. There are lots of other phones that are cheaper but have better specs than this one. But I suppose being “fair” has its price. With €530, you’re not only paying for the phone, but you’re also paying for the ethical sourcing of raw materials and the ethical treatment of the people who make the phone. That’s a fair price to pay, I would say, if it means making other people’s lives better.

Another letdown, but not as much, is how the “modularity” of the Fairphone works. It isn’t as easy as the Phonebloks or Project Ara concept, where you just snap in the modules (“blocks”) right onto the back panel of the phone. You’ll have to do some proper microelectronics servicing: working with screws, wires, tiny connectors, and so on.

Also, the spare parts of the Fairphone are not upgrades; rather, they’re just the same components the base model has. It takes away the upgradeability factor. I do hope Fairphone takes easy upgrades into consideration, though. That would be a nice selling point for them as well.

 

In conclusion, the modular phone still has some hurdles to hop over.

There are the issues of software, compatibility, and cost. But if there can be enough demand for a modular smartphone, then it will take off one way or another. I see modularity as the future of mobile technology. Not only for smartphones, but also for tablets and laptops as well.

modular computer concept
Photo credit: Phonebloks.com

I would say it won’t be bad for business either. There will still be repeat purchases, but this time of individual components rather than entire devices. Electronics companies can still profit off of manufacturing spare parts if a large enough number of people want to buy them. Modular is the way to go, especially with how fast modern electronics technology develops.

 

 

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