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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  • keitaro - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Here's a question... since I'm not exactly well versed in ARM and SoC in general -- how will the OS adapt to a change in CPU (or SoC)? Let's say we swap a Snapdragon 800 for a Tegra4 or a Tegra5. Is there any architectural differences that could prevent the OS (in all likelihood, Android) from working at all? Reply
  • raptorious - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    I think the OS issues are really just the tip of the iceberg, and they could be overcome. The real issue would be the hardware platform. Smartphones and tablets aren't just designed around an SOC, there are integral platform components such as VR's, platform power management controllers, etc which are designed around the SOC. Many of these parts won't be interchangeable between SOC's. I suppose it's possible that the "CPU module" could include many of these things, but then it would be huge, and furthermore, there may be thermal problems to solve, as you'd be putting discrete power delivery components right next to the SOC, rather than spreading them out over the entire phone, as I would presume is often done in current smartphones. Reply
  • ShieTar - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    That's exactly the work that Motorola has to do now, identify which blocks can be separated from the main SOC in a meaningful way. The screen seems to be the obvious first step, but some modules like storage and the SIM are probably connected through a standardized bus anyways.

    Even if not, just splitting the system into four parts: (Case, Battery, SOC, Screen) would already allow users to make meaningful updates of their phone without the environmental nightmare that is a full replacement.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Bam. This is where it's at. The original PhoneBloks concept was technically illiterate but that doesn't mean every possible implementation of an idea has to be and there is plenty of room for more refined, practical versions of the concept. Reply
  • A5 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    If you gave up on optimization and targeted only the pure ARM APIs, you'd probably at least get something functional with a very basic (aka slow) driver set. I'm not sure how well it would be able to reconfigure to an optimized configuration on the fly.

    Power users would probably end up going with something that resembles the Gentoo Linux model, where you compile everything yourself so that it is optimized for your hardware. That's obviously not practical for 99.5% of people, though.
    Reply
  • raptorious - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    I think you're missing the point: there are no "pure ARM APIs". There exists an ARM instruction set, but everything else is up to the SOC maker. This is in stark contrast to how things work in the PC world: there is in fact an actual x86 platform, which defines not only the CPU instruction set, but also the way that devices get mapped to addresses, the way that the CPU interacts with those devices, etc. Basically, there is no ARM platform, only an ARM instruction set. The "plug n' play" capability that has existed in Windows on x86 for years is essentially not technically possible for ARM SOCS at the moment. Reply
  • Ungo - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    This is the dumbest idea ever. It's astonishing that a major OEM like Motorola would give it the time of day, much less "partner" with yet another wannabe product designer whose main skills lie in making CAD renders of things which are impossible to build. Do they have any engineers advising the marketdroids over there?

    For those who have your hopes up, I hate to break it to you but even if they ever ship anything (doubtful), it will suck. Forget about regulatory hurdles, the real problem is that it will be more expensive than conventionally constructed phones, it won't perform as well, it will be less reliable, the software will suck, it will be heavier, and it will be bulky. Oh, and it probably won't be very mix and match in the end.
    Reply
  • melgross - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Google is desperate to have Motorola survive. The new heavily promoted Moto X isn't selling Win Phone very well, and has received so so reviews, on average. Something has to be done.

    So this is a radical move. Will they ever manage to come out with real product? It's hard to know. But if Moto doesn't do something major to turn the business around, Google will be taking a $12.5 billion write off. We all know that they will do anything to avoid that. Google isn't a company to admit they did anything wrong.

    But like the article, and a number of posters have said, it's unlikely this will be successful. There are too many barriers in front of it. I was a partner in a professional audio manufacturing company, as I look at these things from a design, manufacturing and performance perspective, having designed pro level equipment that had backplanes that modules plugged into.

    These devices cost a fair amount more because of the additional complexity. They were also larger. For a very expensive piece of commercial equipment, it makes sense. But for a phone, it doesn't.
    Reply
  • melgross - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Oops. Auto correct has helped me turn a sentence into nonsense. I didn't catch it.

    Somehow, Win Phone was inserted into the second sentence. So unless the site is secretly promoting Win Phone, the error is mine.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    You are completely missing the point here. But good effort. Reply

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