If this year told us anything, it is that smartphones have reached a point of saturation. Not in terms of number of units that are being sold, but in the way they are made. Every new flagship phone that has been released this year, the iPhone 5S, Galaxy S4, HTC One, and Sony Xperia Z1, are all more or less minor improvements on their previous models. Year on year, the specifications are getting better, the RAM is increased, quad-core processors are replaced by octa-core processors, the screens are bigger, have better resolution, and the batteries get bigger. For the last few years, the mobile phone industry has seen incremental changes. What technologists love to call evolution instead of revolution.
Mobile phone companies, big and small, have been trying to rectify it. Samsung often leaks information about the wraparound displays it is planning, LG just showed off it’s self healing phone, Apple rumour mill keeps churning, one day coming up with an iPhone made of sapphire, another day made of liquid metal. Whatever all these companies are doing, the fact remains that there is not much left to do with a rectangle piece of glass. Another problem with selling hundreds of millions of these phones is that one or two years down the line the same people will have to buy new phones and discard the old ones just because, more often than not, one or two parts of that phone have become unusable.
A concept called Phonebloks, launched as a video on YouTube in September, and which has since gone viral, aims to solve these two problems by coming up with a innovative idea. That idea has been co-opted by Google-owned Motorla and given a name. Project Ara. The concept is deceptively simple. Your phone, instead of being a big chunk that you cannot get into, will be made of different modules and will be infinitely customisable. Instead of replacing your phone, all you need to do replace those individual modules. You want a better processor, replace it. You don’t want a camera but want a bigger battery? Just take off the camera module, replace it with a bigger battery module. This modular phone will be supported by an ‘endo’, short for the phone’s endoskeleton, or in lay terms the basic structure, which will be provided by Motorola. It is up to you which modules you want to go with that endo and how you want your phone to be. Announcing Project Ara, Motorola says on it’s blog it ‘wants to develop a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. We want to do for hardware what Android has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.’
Unlike many companies that announce, or sometimes leak product details to gauge the public mood, Motorola seems to be going ahead full steam to make modular phones a reality. The past week it has even signed up 3D systems, a manufacturing partner to create those individual modules.
But questions remain. In a world where even companies like Microsoft are coming around to Apple’s long-touted philosophy that software and hardware should be tightly aligned, how successful will modular phones be? How bulky, how easy to use and how economical will they be. As Nigel Hietala, a UX designer says on twitter, “My 6-year-old often makes Lego phones. But even he knows it is make-believe. I guess Project Ara and Phonebloks show some never grow up.” Next year we will know if it is indeed make-believe or something revolutionary.
The writer is a tech geek.