Phonebloks was a campaign that focused upon attracting the interest of OEMs by showing that there was an incredible amount of interest for a modular phone. This was mostly for reasons of reducing electronics waste, the potential for incredible customization, and the potential for reduced upgrade costs associated with the 1-2 year upgrade cycle. As the current model requires the purchase of an entire phone, upgrading a single “module”, or a set of modules that would update the device would reduce the cost of upgrading to the consumer, much like the current desktop PC system of upgrading individual components.

However, at the time it seemed unlikely that such a campaign would ever produce a meaningful result in the industry. Now, it might be less so as Motorola announced Project Ara, a platform that promises the same modularity that the Phonebloks campaign was promoting, and has also partnered with the creator of the Phonebloks campaign for this project.The concept is largely the same, with an endoskeleton and modules that make up the phone. The display, following the Phonebloks concept, is also likely to be its own module. While actual details of the concept are effectively nil, there are still an enormous number of challenges that such a design would face.

The first would be from a purely hardware perspective, as there is an unavoidable tradeoff between volumetric efficiency and modularity in such a design. While modern smartphones are effectively a tight stack of PCB, battery, and display, this adds in an entire interface for each module that connects them together. This means that the memory module would effectively go from the size of an average eMMC chip to around a full-size SD card due to the need for a durable interface that would connect it to the rest of the phone. This is most readily seen by the differences between the international and Korean LG G2, as the international variant has a ~15% larger battery by virtue of the sealed design that allowed for LG Chemicon’s curved battery pack with thinner walls to allow for more battery capacity.

The second issue in this case would be regulatory, as the FCC only tests single configurations for approval. Such a design would be incredibly challenging to get approval for as there could easily be unpredictable RF behavior from unexpected behavior from a specific setup of modules, or issues with the endoskeleton portion because the modules aren't all part of a single PCB that is unlikely to suffer issues with short circuits or other connection issues, while a modular design would face such challenges.

The final major issue is that of history, as the failure of Intel’s Whitebook initiative from 2006 makes it much harder to see a similar initiative succeeding in the smartphone space. As the Whitebook initiative promised a DIY, modular laptop, much like Phonebloks and Project Ara, and failed due to the rise of completely integrated laptop designs such as the Apple rMBP line, it seems unlikely that such a project would succeed without significant compromise, either in modularity or in competitiveness with the more integrated smartphones. While laptops like the rMBP are effectively impossible for the user to repair, much less open, they have become incredibly popular, and the PC OEMs have followed Apple’s lead in this regard, with consumer demand generally tending towards thinner and lighter laptops, just as the same demand seems to occur in the smartphone space, it is difficult to see such an initiative succeeding. While such initiatives are sure to garner widespread enthusiast support, enthusiasts generally lose their ability to influence the market once a market segment becomes popular with general consumers, as can be seen by the PC industry. However, it remains to be seen whether there is mass-market appeal for such a phone, and it may well be that Motorola is tapping a niche with enormous potential.

 

Source: Motorola

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  • UpSpin - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Ok, so then the manufacturer has to offer maybe 4 different shaped battery blocks, and the consumer has to buy all of them if we plans to swap some blocks around.

    But really, the main question remains: What do you gain by replacing the camera, which occupies maybe 0.5cm^2 with additional battery which occupied maybe 16cm^2? Oh yes, 3% more battery life, that's 20 minutes, if it lasted 12h normally under full load. Wow.

    Of course, if you want a larger battery you can go on, and remove the mic, Wifi, WWAN, don't forget the SoC, yeah, you can keep the display.
    Sorry, that's stupid. Take a look how current smartphones are build, and large the battery compared to the rest is and you'll see there are maybe four blocks: LCD, battery, PCB, camera.
    Reply
  • juanml82 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    You don't. You choose the battery size you want when you purchase it, you may buy a second battery to keep a spare. And you choose which of the several types of cameras offered you want, with the option to upgrade in the future.
    So, with the same phone, a customer might buy the skinny battery that makes it extra thin while another can buy a larger, bulkier battery which can endure two days of moderate usage instead of one. Some user might forego the frontal camera, or buy a vga one, while another chooses a 5 MP typical smartphone camera and a third one also adds a large camera with larger sensor and far bigger and better optics, which takes far better photos but also has a bigger footprint (think those Sony camera modules, but integrated into the phone).
    You also pick the screen size which fits you better and maybe add on peripherals, such as a mini keyboard or a gamepad. You could also go for a standard sim module or get a double, or triple, module, for instance.

    This said, I'm not sure it would be a commercial sucess. It's not likely to keep a competitive pricing and I'm not sure carriers want to forgo 1-2 years upgrades.
    Reply
  • UpSpin - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Ok, so you think of it like a more flexible Moto X, which can be fully customized. More likely to happen than what I talked about, still a big challenge, because the current parts fit to each other, and I doubt that there's much to customize on a phone. Most of the parts are inside the SoC, the rest are mostly the latest and greates tech stuff already.
    So the only thing I can see to happen soon, different battery sizes sacrificing device thickness, as long as the smartphone is build in a sandwich like structure.
    Reply
  • Computer Bottleneck - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    "I want you to carefully examine this picture of the iPhone 5s completely disassembled, courtesy iFixit:

    http://d3nevzfk7ii3be.cloudfront.net/igi/RSVKmYBON...

    Take a look at the camera module. If you can't find it, it's to the left of the camera window in the rear housing. Yes, that's the whole camera, optics and all. Now take a look at the battery and tell me how you're going to be able to substitute a meaningful amount of battery for the camera."

    That is a really good point you made about substituting camera for more battery.

    ......but what if someone wants to configure a specialized phone that has an extra large camera? By that same logic the camera could increase in size 10X and the battery size wouldn't be affected that much.
    Reply
  • Mttfer - Thursday, June 26, 2014 - link

    Dont be such a pessimist. What they are doing is amazing they will revolutionize smart phones. Also HOW many characters JUST to say they CANT!?! Reply
  • jt122333221 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    I think the goal of this project is to create a standardized modular platform though. Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Due to highly integrated nature of smart phones, there isn't going to be any sort of platform standardization. That doesn't imply there isn't any standardization. Things like the display interfaces, flash IO, and even buses internal on ARM SoC's are all standardized. This does allow OEM's to swap out parts during the design phase of a smart phone. However, integration wins in the smart phone space without question due to the massive benefits in battery life, physical size and performance. Reply
  • Computer Bottleneck - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    If anyone is interested in signing up to collaborate, here is the website I found for the project:

    http://www.dscout.com/ara
    Reply
  • vekin - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Wait...
    Phonebloks isn't a joke?
    Could have fooled me!
    Reply
  • Jon Tseng - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Yea the testing angle seems the biggest barrier to me... Not only regulatory testing but also carrier testing. You'll need to get AT&T really engaged early on to swing that one (to be fair they obviously have a good relationship w them viz Moto X). J Reply

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