After the initial dazzle and growth in the smartphone industry, the wheel of innovation seems to have hit a speed breaker. Over the last couple of years, the phone released have been more like incremental advancements over the previous versions rather than technological leaps to be marvelled at. The phones aren't bad. In fact, they are some of the best that the makers have ever produced. But, by now people are quite used to seeing Apples, Samsungs, and Googles producing devices that appeared almost miraculous when they first made an appearance a decade ago.
Flagship phones already have top-notch hardware and advanced software. So what could the next smartphone frontier be? Enter modular phones. Of late, the industry seems to be picking up the concept of modularity, in different shapes and designs, with gusto. Google's Project Ara has been aiming at full modularity, while phones such as LG G5 and Moto Z now sport modular add-ons.
In 2013, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens presented the idea of Phonebloks at a conference in Melbourne. His aim was to reduce the e-waste and give the consumer the freedom to upgrade the smartphone without burning a hole in the pocket.
Later in the year, Google's then subsidiary Motorola announced that they will be working on a modular smartphone under the name Project Ara. They said that they will also be collaborating with Phonebloks for the project. In 2014, at Google IO, the company demonstrated an almost working modular phone but unfortunately, the demo stuck on the boot screen. Later, in 2015, Google released a second developer kit and planned to launch the consumer version of the phone in Puerto Rico, though that plan too became stalled indefinitely because of technical reasons.
However, at the Google IO this year a working model of Project Ara was shown which got the tech industry's qualified approval. With the help of Dan Kaufman, ex-head innovator at DARPA, Google is planning to take Project Ara to consumers by 2017. Though, the creator of the Phonebloks is unhappy with the effort, his point being that since the CPU, battery and the antenna are in the skeleton of the phone, it is not truly modular.
Google is not the only company working on the modular phone concept. Puzzlephone which started as an Indiegogo campaign, is attempting what can be called partial modularity. They have two pieces in their phone which can be removed and replaced with other modules.
Current phone makers are also joining the modular trend. While they are not making the phones fully modular yet, they are trying to attach add-ons in different forms and factors which can enhance some capabilities of the phone. One fine example is LG G5, which launched this year in February at MWC (Mobile Word Congress). It comes with a detachable battery module at the bottom. The company has introduced replacement modules, such as camera module and an audio DAC module. Making modular phones entails constancy in design over successive models so that the modules are usable across successive models.
Fairphone is one of the first consumer modular phones to hit the market. Lenovo-owned Motorola is also coming up with a modular phone with its Moto Z smartphones. However, they are taking a different approach as compared to LG to give their phones a modular makeover. Motorola is fashioning modular back plates, that resemble the phone case, for add-on features.
We may not see fully functional modular phones very soon, but partially modular phones could well turn a mid-range phone into a premium phone after the add-ons. Until then, we can keep playing with our lego blocks!