What's the deal with Modular Phones?


A few weeks ago, at Google I/O, A fully functioning modular phone was showcased, which is slated to go on sale sometime in 2017. But what are modular phones?

To understand modular phones, let’s go back to the basics. What does modular even mean?

modular : ?employing or involving a module or modules as the basis of design or construction.

And what are modules?

module : each of a set of standardized parts or independent units that can be used to construct a more complex structure, such as an item of furniture or a building.

And now, they’re used to construct cellphones!


The concept of modular cellphones first garnered widespread attention back in 2012 when a Dutch designer, Dave Hakkens created a design for a phone, aptly named ‘Phonebloks’ , made completely of interchangeable ‘bloks’ that could be swapped in or out depending on how you wanted to use your phone.

He made a video about this new concept that got over 20 million views, and then.. Nothing. The world received a few updates from him over the coming years but nothing concrete.

In 2013 we got Project Ara, announced by Google. They announced they’d be working closely with Phonebloks to create a fully functional modular phone and the world was enthralled again! A near-working prototype of an Ara smartphone was presented at Google I/O 2014; however, the device froze on the boot screen and failed to boot completely.


And so, the world forgot about modular phones again.


The Revival

Three weeks ago, at Google I/O 2016 google unveiled a working model of their Ara phone, and finally the wait was over. We had all got what we were dreaming about, a completely customizable, phone that could be made to suit your exact needs. Surely this was the pinnacle of mobile phones?

Not exactly.

The original dream for Ara was to modularize everything from the screen to the processor to the camera. For the developer version shipping later this year and the consumer version shipping next year, however, some key components are going to be baked into the frame of the phone: the screen, some basic speakers for the phone, and the processor and RAM.

That's caused no small amount of disappointment amongst the geeks who were most excited for Ara. But according to the Ara team, after "lots of research" they found that most users "couldn't care less about it" and that "most people didn't know what their processor was or did."

Ara plans to ship with six slots for modules — four if you use two double-sized modules. "If you modularize everything," the Ara team argues, "there's very little space for stuff that is really different and innovative."  Instead of a basic "endoskeleton" that you can buy once and upgrade forever, Ara is now a good phone that lets you swap in all sorts of extra hardware functions.


So we’re finally getting our first modular phone in 2017. But what does this really mean. Are modular phones going to be the norm now? Will they replace our traditional phones and give us complete control over the technology in our phone?

The Drawbacks

The first major drawback, is that modular phones aren’t what we expected them to be. Instead of being the slick, fully customizable powerhouses we thought they’d be, we now have a regular phone with a few interchangeable part.

Another potential major drawback is third party hardware. Modular phones will now come with upgrades from the company that made the phone, but true freedom comes only when we have a multitude of options available to us. If third party manufactures aren’t quick enough on the uptake, we’ll be left with, in essence, a non-modular phone.

The third drawback, and this is a long way off, is how companies will adapt to this change in technology. If a company were to release a completely customizable phone one day, people might never buy another phone from them again. “Why would I buy a new phone when I can just upgrade the phone i have?” is what that company will probably be hearing from that point onwards. So this begs the question, will a company ever release a fully modular phone, even if the technology is there?

Despite all these drawbacks, one this is for certain. There's no turning back now. Google has (as usual) taken the first concrete step in giving us complete control over what we use, and the way we use it, in the form of a modular phone. With technology getting more and more advanced, to the point where even complex tasks like attending an interview  becomes ridiculously easy, there’s a tech revolution coming, and for me, it can't come fast enough.

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