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Can modular phones find a space in the mobile market?

By Owen Williams / November 14, 2013

As the fanfare for fingerprint scanners begins to die down, people are already looking for the next big thing in mobile. According to hardware manufacturer Phonebloks, that thing will be modular smartphones. This inspiring new take on our most beloved devices has captivated the minds of many who imagine a world where mobile phones could be changed on a whim.

As it turns out, many companies share Phonebloks’s vision. The organization is partnering with Motorola, which has been working on a prototype modular phone for over a year. The project, code-named “Ara”, aims to do away with expensive and frequent replacements of entire phones in favor of switching out only those parts the user wants to update. The question is, will the general public want to revamp the way they’ve been replacing their cellphones for over a decade?

The power to customize

Giving users the ability to build and upgrade their phones from storage space to speakers unlocks an unprecedented opportunity for customization and personalization. Like in the PC market, buyers will be able to pick and choose the components they want according to their needs. If a user wants to have the latest and greatest camera, they could buy it and slide it into their pre-existing handset.

Not only is replacing entire smartphones on a less regular cycle better for your wallet, it’s also better for the environment. Imagine where all of last year’s iPhones will end up once everyone starts switching to the 5s and 5c.

Although modular phones may sound like a futuristic pipedream, Motorola believes this technology is closer than you think. The company has plans to get a modular phone kit in the hands of US developers in the next couple of months, meaning it could be on shelves as early as the beginning of 2014. Motorola has clearly invested a lot of time and money in the technology, and they have no doubt it will change the way the entire market works.

Phonebloks’s vision is simple: create a phone “for life” that is open to more than just one manufacturer to own. Luckily, Motorola (which is owned by Google) shares that vision and will develop Phonebloks as an open platform device that allows other manufacturers to use their specifications to build their own modules for the handset.

But could it work?

The idea of a customizable phone that can be upgraded bit by bit has been bouncing around for some time, but it’s never actually come to fruition. That’s likely because there are many difficulties related to building such a device. Not only is there the issue of how to handle a handset with so many customizable options, but there’s also the issue of how to build software that can handle so many variations.

Google already has a hard enough time making sure the Android OS works fluidly across a broad range of devices, so how are they going to handle a phone with almost infinite possibilities? That said, it could actually make the fragmentation situation on Android much simpler to handle. Since hardware is nothing without an operating system, Android has component manufacturers in the palm of their hands.

One of the largest problems facing a modular-based phone is the aging of the device’s motherboard. Over time, the core of the phone will become older and slower, with much faster technology quickly eclipsing it. The Motorola Ara concept requires a component called the “spine” that would inevitably age with time. The question is, how long will it last before it needs to be replaced? It’s hard to say now, but at the current rate of change, it seems unlikely you’ll use the same core component for more than two years.

It could also be hard for the mobile OS to detect when hardware has been added or swapped out, and when to load the correct drivers in order to use new functionality. Perhaps with Android’s new decoupled architecture, the phone could detect when new hardware is installed and simply retrieve it from the Play Store seamlessly for the user. Hopefully, users won’t ever be required to install a driver or spend time trying to figure out how to get a new peripheral working.

The hardware integration is only the tip of the iceberg. From a software standpoint, applications would need a way to detect what features are present on the phone—such as a camera, an accelerometer and a gyroscope—to install or launch. If those are missing, they would need to either run in a reduced functionality mode or refuse to run altogether. All applications would need mechanisms for handling situations where the required hardware isn’t present or good enough to run the software.

Although app compatibility is a difficult obstacle to address, it isn’t a dealbreaker. Apple handles this issue very well, allowing previous generations of iPhones (such as those without the M7 motion chip set or the slow-motion camera) to install and run applications that are intended for the latest devices. Once running, the app automatically disables features that aren’t available on that particular handset, while giving the user the ability to try the other functions that don’t require special hardware. The onus of identifying what features are and aren’t supported by the phone is put on the app developers.

The desirability problem

All of this said, do people actually want a customizable smartphone? If the PC market is any indicator, then the answer is yes. However, if the first modular phone is more like the Motorola Moto X, the answer may be no. Motorola thought the Moto X would boost their share of the mobile market by giving users greater control of their phone’s appearance, but they were mistaken. It seems the inside is what really counts when it comes to smartphones.

The magic may simply be in the marketing. If Phonebloks, Motorola and their hardware partners can come together to create an ecosystem for hardware and software that actually works, then this concept could actually take off. They would need to sell the benefits of not needing to upgrade the entire phone on a yearly basis—the lifeblood of Apple—by making it extremely accessible to customers and showing them how easy it is to build for themselves.

That’s not an insurmountable problem, but there’s a long road ahead. Most buyers don’t mind buying the latest and greatest phone, because it works right out of the box and they don’t have to spend time setting it up and configuring it. As long as Motorola, Phonebloks and Android can appeal to the same people who pour thousands of dollars into customizing their personal computers, they just may steal a sizable piece of the smartphone market.