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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  • bountygiver - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Hopefully when it comes out the components are not ridiculously expensive. Reply
  • VengenceIsMineX - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Interesting from a geek perspective but I can't see this succeeding in the market in any way. Moto X type superficial customization is about as far as that can go and compete on an industrial design level. Reply
  • jak3676 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Reminds me of the story about Edison and the lightbulb - when he explained that the whole thing was sealed and could not be repaired by the end user, someone said it was a worthless idea. They just couldn't wrap their mind around the concept of building something electical that was so cheap that users would be OK with just throwing it out and buying a new one. This seems to be the opposite of that - consumers seem to be perfectly fine throwing out their current cell phone and buying a new one. Trying to build a modular phone seems to make about as much sense as trying to build a user repairable light bulb.

    On the flip side if Google/Motorola is just trying to develop some standards for how stuff interconnects, e.g. some sort of mobile PCIe, I guess that may help.
    Reply
  • easp - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    This smells like FUD/Vaporware to me.

    This is Moto and Google promising something they probably can't and likely won't be able to deliver in order to cast doubt on offerings from their more vertically integrated competitors (Apple and Samsung).

    This sounds like an attempt to repeat the commoditization of the PC without recognizing that the world is dramatically different than it was then. For one thing, the whole mobile industry now is much much larger than the PC industry was then. Moreover, price-points are dramatically different. A high end phone is less than $1000 in todays dollars. Your average PC in the early/mid 80's was several times more expensive, didn't have the same space and power constraints and was much much less integrated.

    I struggle to think of another mass-market, tech-heavy consumer product that is similarly upgradeable/re-configurable. Perhaps stereo a/v equipment, though that has grown more integrated over time. Maybe some cameras, but even there, the OEM controls most of the platform, and the major costs are the lenses, which don't advance as quickly as electronics.

    It is certainly bold, but it seems incredibly unlikely.
    Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Dumb idea even for Google/Motorola. Reply
  • willis936 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Ah yes, google and motorola have dumb ideas regularly. They run a very successful business on dumb ideas. Flawless analysis. Reply
  • Beautyspin - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Writeup with absolutely no research done. Moto had purchased Modu patents in 2011 which is a Israeli company with similar concept but only for Israel, and it did not work there. So this was done before Moto purchase and possibly one of the reasons for the purchase. So it is not Phonebloks that Moto is copying - it is just leveraging their community. Learn to write unbiased articles Anandtech. Reply
  • izmanq - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    they should do this for notebook. i never that intel think, if they sell notebook this way, i would buy it right away, i think they fail because they give up even before they really try Reply
  • Computer Bottleneck - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Regarding the Intel whitebook initiative mentioned, one problem I saw it having was Windows Licensing.

    So even if Intel developed an upgrade motherboard that could be swapped into an existing laptop chassis (as mentioned in this link here---> http://www.asipartner.com/ASIAcademy/IntelSpringPe...

    "In fact, the next generation or product use the same chassis with the same motherboard layout so components such as an LED screen or AC connector jack are interchangeable between the different generation of notebooks."

    .....there was always the issue of the MS Windows OS being tied to the original motherboard. (Adding complexity, expense, etc to the transfer process)

    With Linux (on a phone), the software doesn't have this limitation. The software (AFAIK) can be easily migrated from one computer to the other.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Google glass is definitely not at the stage where it impresses me. This modular phone concept is even worse. It's like someone woke up and said "Gee, I'd like my smartphone to be an ugly, blocky piece of junk - unlike all of these sleek devices on the market today."

    Maybe they'll prove me wrong. But I suspect that if the OEMs really like this, it comes down to cost savings.
    Reply

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