Tech Tuesday – The Future of Phones, Part Two: Modular Phones

Two weeks ago we focused on the fact that we may be moving toward a future of fold-able phones. This week, rather than focus on the front of the phone (we talked a lot about flexible displays) we’re talking about the metaphorical ‘back’ – the components that construct your phone.

The inside of the Samsung Galaxy S 4G.

Modular phones, or phones that you can easily build yourself out of separate, specially designed parts, seem like something the LEGO® company would create. But is also the dream of phone techies, and Google and Motorola have begun the process of making that dream come true.

But what is the idea behind a modular phone? Netherlander Dave Hakkens describes the inspiration for and the idea behind modular phones in the video he posted in 2013.

 The video went viral in the month after it was originally posted, and inspired excited conversations among tech journalists, bloggers and vloggers. In the wake of the hubbub, Google (through Motorola) came forward with its own modular phone plans, titled Project Ara. Hakkens has opted to work with the project by providing an open forum to share advances in Project Ara and to project the voices of everyday phone users back to Google.

The Project Ara team leader, Paul Eremenko, presented the first prototype of the Ara at Google I/O this year.

But what makes this idea so special, when it’s likely that this phone will be heavier and clunkier than the sleek, big-screen phones that are already being sold?

A mock-up of the Project Ara phone with one of its components removed.

As Hakkens expressed in his video, there is some hope that this type of phone, in which you can update only the attribute that needs it (bigger camera, faster processor, bigger battery, etc.) will result in a reduction of the electronic waste that comes from mobile phone users updating their phone every two years (or whenever they drop their phone and crack their screen). It would also open up the market for manufacturers: rather than trying to convince companies to include their camera, battery or screen in individual phone models, parts manufacturers can sell directly to consumers. That could result in more competition and through it better, cheaper phone parts. Consumers wouldn’t have to pay several hundred dollars to their phone company each time they upgrade, and could potentially experience less overall cost. The lessened expense might open up the market to those who would not otherwise be able to justify the expense of a phone.

Embed from Getty Images

So what’s the problem?

As with most technological advances, there are several. The most obvious is that the technology is still in its developmental phase, and has some distance to come before it’s ready for sale. A potentially bigger problem is that it’s possible that phone companies aren’t going to want to support a phone that their customers won’t want to replace every two years. The current upgrade model that is place is a huge cash cow for most providers, and the design of the Ara means that that money would go to parts manufacturers.

Finally, and perhaps most distressingly, there is no guarantee that the Ara would reduce the amount of technological trash that goes out into the world each year – in fact, it might add more to the amount of pollution we produce. If upgrades become cheaper and easier to obtain, people are likely to begin replacing, and therefore disposing of, parts of their phone more frequently than they would dispose of their old phones. For that particular issue, it is a game of ‘wait and see.’

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