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What the Heck Is a Modular Smartphone, and Why Might I Want One?

Daniel Bean
·Assistant Editor
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This week, Google held an event for a smartphone it doesn’t even make. At the Ara developer’s conference — and through a series of YouTube videos — Google pulled back the curtain on Project Ara, a strange, exciting new initiative that seeks to create a realistic blueprint for a modular smartphone.

Google, and its partner in the initiative, a dynamic startup called Phonebloks, have made it a very exciting time in the advancement of the modular smartphone — exciting, that is, for those who know what a modular smartphone is and why it could potentially be a game-changing concept for mobile phone electronics.

If this is all foreign to you, that’s no problem. Allow us to explain and catch you up:

What is a modular smartphone?

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Phonebloks mock-up.

Here’s the idea: Instead of buying a new smartphone once every 18 or 24 months, you’ll be able to upgrade the one you have by replacing things like the camera, processor, and screen with newer versions, plug-and-play style. 

So: It’s a smartphone made up of different modules, which you can replace and update as time goes on. 

The visionaries at Phonebloks conceptualized the peripheral replacement and expansion mechanics of the modular smartphone as being like attaching Lego blocks. As fun and simple as that sounds, no real Phonebloks prototype has been built yet. And since Google has come forward with Ara, we’ve only just recently begun to see mock-up dummy models of what its idea of a modular device might eventually be like (see the video below).

In concept, the modular smartphone reminds us of old PC towers. These were the computers with which you could add new, larger-capacity hard drives, faster CD-ROM burners, and even switch out the RAM and processor quite easily. The idea back then was that you would upgrade your computer piecemeal and hold onto the same machine for long periods of time instead of buying a whole new one every year or so.

With a modular smartphone, this same idea is the goal, but this time for the computer in your pocket. 

Who will make them?
This part is tricky. Here’s why: Neither Phonebloks nor Project Ara is a project to build a complete smartphone. Instead, these projects are, as The Verge explained, “making the instructions for how a modular phone would work.”

Like it does with Android, and the Chrome OS, Google won’t be producing its own hardware, but instead will be providing operating software and a platform upon which vendors can create devices and components. So far, Google has announced Ara partnerships with companies like Toshiba and 3D Systems.

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Toshiba’s presentation at the Ara developer’s conference. (Engadget)

So, much like those build-it-yourself PC towers we used to put together, a modular smartphone of the future would be made up of different components from different companies — maybe a Sony camera, an LG screen, an Intel processor, and an OtterBox body.

What are the big advantages with modular smartphones?
There are plenty of people who love to hang onto their gadgets as long as possible. (Looking at you, Windows XP computer owners.) For these folks, an upgradeable, modular smartphone would allow them to stick with the equipment they’re familiar with, while also staying current with the newest hardware internals and software releases. 

The concept is also great for those with very specific needs and desires in a smartphone. If you want a high-quality camera, but a small-ish screen, maybe the future Galaxy S7 or iPhone 8 won’t be your cup of tea. No problem. If this modular phone thing actually happens, you’ll be able to mix and match your pick of camera and screen. And maybe you’ll want a physical home button, maybe you won’t — all these things would potentially be options to play with when constructing your own modular smartphone.

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Project Ara mock-up.

So you won’t have to wait around to see if Samsung or HTC’s latest catches your fancy, performance and hardware-wise. And there will be a lot more flexibility color-wise and material-wise, too. The association with 3D Systems, the 3D-printing company that Google has partnered with, in Ara introduces the possibility that shapes, design patterns, and textures could easily be personalized for each modular phone purchase, or even made at home, for those with 3D printers. Nice touch.

One more plus: Modular smartphones could cut down on waste. This is one of the primary goals of the Phonebloks team: They see their project as a way to solve the problem of owners needlessly throwing away “worn out” devices that would otherwise be perfectly functional after a component replacement. With Phonebloks, a component replacement that would normally be some type of costly, send-away repair is simplified and turned into a swap out of one of the phone’s “bloks.”

What are the downsides?
OK, design snobs, here’s where we lose you.

There’s probably not going to be any way to fit all of this customization and technological sophistication into a thin, light, and “design-first” smartphone. Sorry. And this isn’t just conjecture on our part. Project Ara’s own team lead said as much in an interview with The Verge, referring to the concepts of customization and potential richness of ecosystem as a small trade-off in design.

Does this mean it has to be the ugliest thing we’ve ever seen? No. But our best guess is that companies like Apple will not be taking part in this proposed modular smartphone community, and instead will continue to build sleek smartphones that consistently look more and more like fine jewelry and less like science projects. So it would be fair to say that smartphones emerging from Google’s and Phoneblok’s projects will likely represent a step back in design, opposite the progression of the past six or seven years. If that scares you, you probably won’t want anything to do with modular smartphones.

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Project Ara components.

And then there are the engineering concerns.

Some, like tech analyst and blogger George Hahn, think the idea of casually plugging components together in hopes that they would perform as well as the tightly compressed circuit boards that make up the insides of microelectronics today is not plausible. “It’s a physics issue,” Hahn wrote in a post for Generic Maker.

He explained further: “Signals in modern devices are extremely high speed; the easiest and cheapest way to combat this is to bring components closer together. … If we aim a little lower and try for a modular design, the interconnects needed to ensure signal integrity at high speed are still very expensive.”

When can I buy one?
If you’ve read all of the above and are saying to yourself, “Wow, that sounds too good to be true,” it’s because it kind of is. Well, so far it is, anyway.

Google’s Advanced Technology and Products group has set a goal of two years to come to market with a consumer product. Since Ara quietly began back in early 2013, that means it won’t be until at least early 2015 before you can actually buy anything. From whom, for how much, and exactly what it will look like and how it will behave are still largely unknown. With all that information missing, how excited about getting one could you actually be, anyhow?

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Project Ara mock-up.

Despite these caveats, we are super-interested in finding out more about Project Ara and Phonebloks. If you are, too, you can keep your attention here in the coming months and trust that we will bring you all the latest details of the modular smartphone world as they are being put together, piece by piece. 

Have questions, comments, or just want to tell me something funny? Email me at danbean@yahoo-inc.com.