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Gen-i asks… Will Modular smartphones save the world, and your wallet?

28 Mar 14

Google recently sold Motorola, effectively cutting their losses and exiting the smartphone hardware business.

However, they kept one piece of it; a team that, amongst other things, is looking to reinvent the smartphone by making it modular.

Project Ara is the name for this initiative, which would see smartphones becoming a set of interchangeable functional modules, which can be added or upgraded at will. The idea is that a basic smartphone could be purchased for as little as US$50, with additional features added later as the owner’s needs change.

Starting with a WiFi only device, you could then over time add mobile connectivity, Bluetooth, a camera, heart rate monitor, better quality screen - or whatever is coming next.

The idea is similar to Phonebloks, a concept Dave Hakkens dreamed up as primarily a way of reducing e-waste due to entire smartphones being replaced with newer versions every 1-2 years.

There are some fairly useful benefits if this can be achieved; owners could heavily customise their smartphone, save money by only purchasing the functionality they want while also heavily reducing the waste created.

However, there is a whole Reddit thread dedicated to naysayers quoting the father from the movie The Castle – “tell him he’s dreaming”. They point to technical limitations, compatibility issues, production costs, performance concerns and even whether there is even a market for this idea.

Locking the form factor of smartphones wouldn’t have caused a problem in the last few years because sizes have been fairly static for a while now, with new versions only being marginally thinner and lighter.

But if there is massive uptake in flexible smartphones and wearable technology, “standard” modules wouldn’t work as there would be too many shapes and sizes.

They are concerned that too many people might get excited by the pretty video and marketing fluff, ignoring reality in the process. But game-changing innovations have always seemed a little crazy to start with – plenty of commentators said that the iPhone was doomed to fail, for example.

Maybe there is a middle ground – making some of the more regularly upgraded components into replaceable modules, such as the screen or camera, or bolt-on features like a heart-rate monitor.

Making this a reality will take quite a significant change in thinking by the manufacturers – who still haven’t all managed to standardise on chargers. It could also cause a shift in power toward the component manufacturers, which would most likely be met with some resistance.

A good first step to reduce cost and waste would be to at least have all phone chargers work on all phones, then make it possible to purchase a smartphone without a charger – or low quality earphones, which always end up in my bin.

By David Reiss, Propositions Manager, Gen-i

This post was originally published on the Official Gen-i Blog - http://www.gen-i.co.nz/insights/blog/

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