Modular Smart Phones, The Future is coming

By:  Sujith Mohandas (LT MHPS)

Smartphones- Some people love them, some hate and some just find them useful. No matter what people think, they have become an inevitable part of everyday life for Homo sapiens.  Smartphones have become so important that some IT critics believe that mobile computing will replace desktop and laptop computing in the near future. Google, Microsoft, Apple and all other tech companies believe that smartphones and tablets will replace desktop and laptop computing and are heavily investing in R&D of mobile and cloud computing.

Whenever there is a prospect of buying a new smartphone, an individual does a lot of research on the available smartphones and their configuration. The RAM, Camera Megapixels, Processor speed, the display size are just some of the parameters which are assessed before zeroing in on a particular smartphone.  After all the painful research, when a phone is bought spending a considerable amount of money, comes the care and maintenance of the phone. A small crack or a defect makes the heart pound so heavily as the repair cost itself would be higher than the cost of the phone.

As we human beings have always found a solution to all our problems, how can we be behind in solving this issue? Google has come up with this completely novel concept of designing and manufacturing smartphones under the Project Ara. Project Ara is the code name for an unnamed, upcoming modular smartphone that is made of a central module board with individual modules that can be connected. It like a central lego board on which different blocks can be connected and these lego blocks can be a camera or a sensor like a gyroscope or a battery or even a display. The platform will include a structural frame or an endoskeleton that holds smartphone modules of the owner’s choice, such as a display, camera or an extra battery. It would allow users to swap out malfunctioning modules or upgrade individual modules as innovations emerge, providing longer lifetime cycles for the handset, and potentially reducing electronic waste. Ara Smartphones are built using modules inserted into metal endoskeletal frames known as “endos”. The frame will be the only component in an Ara Smartphone made by Google. It acts as the switch to the on-device network linking all the modules together.


Software Rendering images of Project Ara modular smartphones

Now suppose your phone display gets damaged, you can simply just swap the damaged display with a new display without replacing the whole phone. Similarly, if you want a camera with better quality, again you can just simply replace the inferior camera module with a better one. It is as simple as it sounds, just like replacing lego blocks. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Anything that saves money will make us happy, right!

Schematic Diagram of Project Ara Modular Smartphone

Modules not only provide common smartphone features, such as cameras and speakers, but can also provide more specialized features, such as medical devices, receipt printers, laser pointers, pico projectors, night vision sensors, or game controller buttons. Each slot on the frame will accept any module of the correct size. The most awesome part of Ara smartphones is that it can be hot swapped, i.e. you can swap the modules without switching off your phone. Modules were originally to be secured with electro-permanent magnets, but according to the Project ARA team, a better solution has been developed. The enclosures of the modules were planned to be 3D-printed, but due to the lack of development in the technology, Google instead opted for a customizable moulded case.

Project Ara if developed, will be the perfect modular smartphone ever developed. But still, if you want a taste of this technology which is still not at an advanced stage, you will be happy to know that LG and Motorola Mobility has come with its own modular phones called the LG G5 and MOTO Z respectively. For both the phones certain parts can only be swapped, unless like Project ARA where every part can be swapped. And again the cost of these phones is well above ₹ 40,000. Project Ara smartphone is scheduled to begin pilot testing in the United States in 2016 with a target bill of materials cost of $50(₹ 3300 approx.) for a basic grey phone. Google wants Project to lower the entry barrier for phone hardware manufacturers so there could be “hundreds of thousands of developers” instead of the current handful of big manufacturers. This would be similar to how the Google Play Store is structured.

Despite all the efforts done by Google and other developers, some critics believe that the modular concept includes a trade-off between volumetric efficiency and modularity, as the framework interface holding the device would increase overall size and weight. They believe that modularity would create a difference of less than 25% in size, power, and weight to components, and that is an acceptable trade-off for the added flexibility. Additional issues include regulatory approval; the FCC (USA Telecommunications Authority) tests single configurations for approval, not modular configurations.

Whether modular smartphones will be the future, only time can tell.  But looking at the overall development of Project Ara and the availability of semi modular phones in the current market, the future for modular doesn’t look bleak at all. Let’s see whether we would be able to show off with a new phone every month in the near future, without breaking our pockets.