There’s two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the modular smartphone idea. The first is that it’s the way phones were meant to be made, giving users the ability to customize every aspect of their device and reducing e-waste at the same time. The other flips that idea on its head, stating that the idea is infeasible due to the limitations inherent in a modular platform and reliance on manufacturers to build components specifically for the platform. Since I tend towards the latter I thought that Project Ara, Google’s (nee Motorola’s) attempt at the idea, would likely never see the light of day but as it turns out the platform is very real and they even have a working prototype.
The essence of the idea hasn’t changed much since Motorola first talked about it at the end of last year, being a more restrained version of the Phonebloks idea. The layout is the same as the original design prototypes, giving you space on the back of the unit for about 7 modular units and space on the front for a large screen and a speaker attachment. However they also showed off a new, slim version which has space for fewer modules but is a much sleeker unit overall. Google also mentioned that they were working on a phablet design as well which was interesting considering that the current prototype unit was looking to be almost phablet sized. The whole unit, dubbed Spiral 1, was fully functional including module removal and swapping so the idea has definitely come a long way since it’s initial inception late last year.
There are a few things that stand out about the device in its current form, primarily the way in which some of the blocks don’t conform to the same dimensions as other ones. Most notably you can see this with the blood oxygen sensor they have sticking out of the top however you’ll also notice that the battery module is about twice the height of anything else. This highlights one of the bigger issues with modular design as much of the heft in modern phones is due to the increasingly large batteries they carry with them. The limited space of the modular blocks means that either the batteries have significantly reduced capacity or have to be bigger than the other modules, neither of which is a particularly desirable attribute.
In fact the more the I think about Project Ara the more I feel it’s oriented towards those looking to develop hardware for mobile platforms than it is for actual phone users. Being able to develop your specific functionality without having to worry about the rest of the platform frees up a significant amount of time which can then be spent on getting said functionality into other phones. In that regards Project Ara is amazing however that same flexibility is likely what will turn many consumers off such a device. Sure, having a phone tailored to your exact specifications has a certain allure, but I can’t help but feel that that market is vanishingly small.
It will be interesting to see how the Project Ara platform progresses as they have hinted that there’s a much better prototype floating around (called Spiral 2) which they’re looking to release to hardware developers in the near future. Whilst having a proof of concept is great there’s still a lot of questions around module development, available functionality and, above all, the usability of the system when its complete. It’s looking like a full consumer version likely isn’t due out until late next year or early 2016 so we’re going to have to wait a while to see what the fully fledged modular smartphone will look like.
The tech world was all abuzz about Phonebloks just over a month ago with many hailing it as the next logical step in the smartphone revolution. Whilst I liked the idea since it spoke to the PC builder in me it was hard to overlook the larger issues that plagued the idea, namely the numerous technical problems as well as the lack of buy in from component manufacturers. Since then I hadn’t heard anything further on it and figured that the Thunderclap campaign they had ended without too much fuss but it appears that it might have caught the attention of people who could make the idea happen.
Those people are Motorola.
As it turns out Motorola has been working on their own version of the Phonebloks idea for quite some time now, over a year in fact. It’s called Project Ara and came about as a result of the work they did during Sticky, essentially trucking around the USA with unlocked handsets and 3D printers and holding a series of makeathons. The idea is apparently quite well developed with a ton of technical work already done and some conceptual pieces shown above. Probably the most exciting thing for Phonebloks followers ;will be the fact that Motorola has since reached out to Dave Hakkens and are hoping to use his community in order to further their idea. By their powers combined it might just be possible for a modular handset to make its way into the real world.
Motorola’s handset division, if you recall, was acquired by Google some 2 years ago mostly due to their wide portfolio of patents that Google wanted to get its hands on. At the same time it was thought that Google would then begin using Motorola for their first party Nexus handsets however that part hasn’t seemed to eventuate with Google leaving them to do their own thing. However such a close tie with Google might provide Project Ara the resources it needs to actually be successful as there’s really no other operating system they could use (and no, the Ubuntu and Firefox alternatives aren’t ready for prime time yet).
Of course the technical issues that were present in the Phonebloks idea don’t go away just because some technicians from Motorola are working on them. Whilst Motorola’s design is quite a bit less modular than what Phonebloks was purporting it does look like it has a bit more connectivity available per module. Whether that will be enough to support the amount of connectivity required for things like quad core ARM CPUs or high resolution cameras will remain to be seen however.
So whilst the Phonebloks idea in its original form might never see the light of day it does appear that at least one manufacturer is willing to put some effort into developing a modular handset. There’s still a lot of challenges for it to overcome before the idea can be made viable but the fact that real engineers are working on it with the backing of their company gives a lot of credence to it. I wouldn’t expect to see any working prototypes for a while to come though, even with Motorola’s full backing, but potentially in a year or so we might start to see some make their way to trade shows and I’ll be very interested to see their capabilities.
One of the first ideas that an engineer in training is introduced to is the idea of modularity. This is the concept that every problem, no matter how big, can be broken down into a subset of smaller problems that are interlinked. The idea behind this is that you can design solutions specific to the problem space rather than trying to solve everything in one fell swoop, something that is guaranteed to be error prone and likely never to achieve its goals. Right after you’re introduced to that idea you’re also told that modularity done for its own sake can lead to the exact same problems so its use must be tempered with moderation. It’s this latter point that I think the designers of Phonebloks might be missing out on even though as a concept I really like the idea.
For the uninitiated the idea is relatively simple: you buy yourself what equates to a motherboard which you can then plug various bits and pieces in to with one side being dedicated to a screen and the other dedicated to all the bits and pieces you’ve come to expect from a traditional smartphone. Essentially it’s taking the idea of being able to build your own PC and applying it to the smartphone market done in the hope of reducing electronic waste since you’ll only be upgrading parts of the phone rather than the whole device at a time. The lofty idea is that this will eventually become the platform for everyone and smartphone component makers will be lining up to build additional blocks for it.
As someone who’s been building his own PCs for the better part of 3 decades now I think the idea that the base board, and by extension the interconnects it has on it, will never change is probably the largest fundamental flaw with Phonebloks. I’ve built many PCs with the latest CPU socket on them in the hopes that I could upgrade on the cheap at a later date only to find that, when it came time to upgrade, another newer and far superior socket was available. Whilst the Phonebloks board can likely be made to accommodate current requirements its inevitable that further down the track some component will require more connections or a higher bandwidth interface necessitating its replacement. Then, just as with all those PCs I bought, this will also necessitate re-buying all the additional components, essentially getting us into the same position as we are currently.
This is not to mention the fact that hoping other manufacturers, ones that already have a strong presence in the smartphone industry, will build components for it is an endeavor that’s likely to be met with heavy resistance, if it’s not outright ignored. Whilst there are a couple companies that would be willing to sell various components (Sony with their EXMOR R sensor, ARM with their processor, etc.) they’re certainly not going to bother with the integration, something that would likely cost them much more than any profit they’d see from being on the platform.
Indeed I think that’s the biggest issue that this platform faces. Whilst its admirable that they’re seeking to be the standard modular platform for smartphones the standardization in the PC industry did not come about overnight and took the collaboration of multiple large corporations to achieve. Without their support I’m struggling to see how this platform can get the diversity it needs to become viable and as far as I can tell the only backing they’ve got is from a bunch of people willing to tweet on their behalf.
Fundamentally I like the idea as whilst I’m able to find a smartphone that suits the majority of my wants pretty easily there are always things I would like to trade in for others. My current Xperia Z would be a lot better if the speakerphone wasn’t rubbish and the battery was capable of charging wirelessly and I’d happily shuffle around some of the other components in order to get my device just right. However I’m also aware of the giant integration challenge that such a modular platform would present and whilst they might be able to get a massive burst of publicity I’m skeptical that it will turn into a viable product platform. I’d love to be wrong on this though but as someone who’s seen many decades of modular platform development and the tribulations it entails I can’t say that I’m banking money for my first Phoneblok device.