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The Evolution of Modular Smartphones from PhoneBloks to the Future

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Project Ara Modular Design

Modular phones are getting popular these days with their wide range of customizability especially after the release of LG’s G5 Smartphone and the new updates on Project ARA in Google I/O 2016. Will it be the next big thing? In this piece, we are going to talk about the evolution of the Modular devices that were first heard a few years back & are now becoming mainstream.

First of all, Let us answer the question “What is Modular Phone? How it all started?”

“Modular is nothing but a design approach that subdivides a system into smaller parts called modules”

The concept of Modular smartphone was created and designed by the Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, primarily to reduce electronic waste. He named this project “PhoneBloks”. Phonebloks is an open-source project consist of the main board onto which bloks could be snapped on by the user. Each blok is responsible for a unique function of the phone, much like a desktop computer has a distinct sound card, graphics card, processor, monitor, and power supply.

A Collection of individual models which is then combined with a central module board to act as a working smartphone is the main logic behind Project ARA. The platform will include a structural frame or endoskeleton (Central Module Board) that holds smartphone modules of the owner’s choice, such as a display, camera or an extra battery. A look at the concept and the probable evolution of smartphones, Google that was the parent company of Motorola in late 2013 stepped in and announced the same aim of developing the modular phone shortly and that project was named as “PROJECT ARA.”

ARA was headed by Advanced Technology and Projects team within Motorola Mobility. Before disrobing it to Lenovo, Google retained “Advanced Technology and Projects Team” to continue the development of the next hype in the smartphone market after Android.

Why named ARA?

The previous version of the official website said: “As it turns out, our lead mechanical designer is called Ara. And we like him. And we also like his name. So we named the phone Ara. We hope you like it too.” (As mentioned in modularphoneforum.com). The name is short & does differentiate from other products in the market. After the announcements of Project ARA, there were many silent years passed and Google said nothing about ARA, which is when there were doubts on the developments on this front.

But this year, Google finally opened up in I/O 2016 with their development on Project ARA. And announced that they will release a developer version of ARA devices later this year and by next year a consumer model. Also, Google had asked developers to join their hands in this project. At the Google’s I/O 2016, the company announced that the screen, antennas, CPU, and battery are to be locked into the base frame which is also known as Central Module Board. This change is based on several reasons. Integrating key components into the base frame of the phone leaves more room for other modules and saves a lot of design troubles. Also, according to the ARA team research, most people don’t care, or don’t even know which processor they have.

This will take the smartphone industry to a whole new level. Imagine, your phone does not have a good battery life or if your phone’s camera is not okay. You can easily swap up the blocks from the phone and upgrade your phone to next level without even changing the body or any other component of your phone. Isn’t it cool? Though the Father of Modular Design isn’t happy with what Google came with. He wanted this project to be more customizable than what Google has taken with the current initiatives. This project is driving the world crazy by its concept, design, and customizability. Many companies are coming forward with their design and various other concepts like LG did with the G5. They developed a semi-modular phone with interchangeable modules to add new or expand capabilities of LG G5.

LG has already announced a set of modules, that they call it as “Friends.” Every module is called friend however the price of these friends is not consumer friendly. If you take a look at the LG Cam Plus, LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O Play, LG 360 VR, and LG 360 CAM all of them are priced on the higher side. Along with this, it looks like Motorola is also following the footsteps of Project ARA and they are probably coming up with a lineup of Modular phones dubbed as the Moto Z that would be announced tomorrow in the US.

Google Ara Modules

Where is this Modular Design taking us?
This project is taking the smartphone technology to all new level. Imagine the phone you were dreaming all your life, which can be customized based on your needs and requirements. This might create a revolution in this industry. Looking at the possibility, I think a wide range of companies is going to join hands to bring out the best product in the market.

But on the other side, if companies like LG sell their semi-modular devices at a piece of Rs 52,000 with modules priced separately priced at Rs 6,000 then this is probably not the future. This is probably going to end before it even starts. Future is doomed based on how companies react and approach to this project. We are hoping to see a structure from Google that comes with the minimum required hardware components under some “Modular Android One” Series that allow other manufacturers to sell their components or complete modules directly to the consumers.

To put it simply, Google sells you a basic structure, while Sony that leads the Camera technologies would offer camera modules while OPPO may come up with better battery options & so on. This is an expectation from the industry in the coming future because a lot is happening in the industry already with the Foldable Phones & Transparent Displays that would help these technologies take a better shape in the future. In the last year itself, we have seen many projects like the PuzzlePhone, Fonkraft, FairPhone 2, SHIFT5+ that was either launched or listed on crowdsourcing sites clearly pointing that many creators are also taking part of this phenomenon. The future looks flexible with the users having more control on what they seek than what the manufacturers offer.

The story was written by Atish (Intern), edited & published by Amit Bhawani.

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