Mobile

How the rise of modular phones could shape the future of mobile

Above: All of these Project Ara modules will make up a smartphone.

Image Credit: Motorola

Today, our smartphones have more than 200 features and a complex set of hardware that allows all of these features to properly operate.

In most cases, when a mobile phone breaks or has a defect, it’s either impossible or too costly to replace just one part – so many device manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers have settled for the status quo of swapping entire phones instead of attempting to fix the compromised piece of hardware. Additionally, consumers have gotten into the habit of upgrading their current device for the latest and greatest features, abandoning their old devices completely.

To solve this growing hurdle in the mobile sector, Phonebloks, a video that went viral in September of last year, introduced the concept of a “modular phone” to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Now, Google’s Project ARA has turned this concept into reality, aiming to open accessibility and simplify mobile device hardware on a massive scale, similar to what it did with Android for OS. Ideally, this evolution of smartphones will lower costs for manufacturers and consumers alike, while keeping customers satisfied with inexpensive and convenient repair solutions.

With the anticipated introduction of Google’s modular phone, the mobile supply chain industry will in turn evolve to streamline this process. Services will be refocused towards the replacement of individual parts and away from the replacement of entire devices. Upgrades will be presented as a specific part or module, not as a whole new device. As a result, we expect the overall life of a mobile phone to increase drastically with this innovation.

This modular concept opens up more channels for OEMs and retailers to reach the customer. After initially purchasing a modular phone, consumers could shop online at Amazon.com the Google Play store, or another manufacturer’s website to purchase a component, have it shipped directly to them, and exchange the part themselves. These parts could be returned or sent in for repair.

Companies like Canon or Nikon could release new camera modules for mobile phones and consumers could purchase those separately as they are released. This self-serve model creates more possibilities for independent customization of smartphones and opens up a huge market for accessories and add-on components. This includes standard phone necessities like batteries and displays, but also has the potential to include more specific applications, health care for example (e.g. blood sugar tests, thermometers, pulse readers, etc).

The simultaneous rise of 3D printing opens up a whole new realm of possibility from a production perspective for the modular phone. If a consumer can access printed 3D parts or components, there will be less of a need for OEMs to mass produce devices and ship them across the world. In fact, similar to how developers create apps, people could essentially create blueprints for 3D parts and have them accessible for download or purchase and a consumer can have a customized part made within minutes.

But does the modular phone have the ability to appeal to a mainstream audience?

Due to the hands-on nature, design, and limited availability of modular phones it may initially cater to a niche market, but it has the potential to become a widespread phenomenon. Currently, the typical consumer is fine with walking into a carrier or retail store and picking up the newest model off the shelf. So at first, modular phones might be more of a product that appeals to the early adopter, phone enthusiast, or the conservationist, who doesn’t like the idea of discarding a phone every time a part breaks or a newer model is released.

However, similar to the wearable technology phenomenon, we expect other OEMs to begin developing their own concept of the modular phone. In fact, ZTE is already in the process of doing so right now, following in Google’s footsteps. Overall, we expect the launch of Google’s modular phone to spur a new subsector within the mobile industry.

In fact, Google recently released specifications of its modular phone to the developer community, so we will begin to see the third part development of various Project ARA components. From the production of entire devices and individual components, to the repair and service process, we expect to see a significant shift in the mobile industry landscape.

Raul Sfat is the VP of Strategy at B2X Care Solutions.

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3 comments
Jerry Hsiang
Jerry Hsiang

It could also shape how company's generate revenue. Struggling companies like htc and bbry can now focus on building an ecosystem instead of delivering a stand alone smartphone