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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  • Computer Bottleneck - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    If the modular design allows a good amount of niche devices to be configured (from one device) I will be very interested.

    For example:

    1. Blocks that allow the phone to function better as a camera. (At the expense of something else)
    2. Blocks that allow the phone to have better speaker. (at the expense of something else)
    3. Block that improves cooling of the SOC so the device has better docked performance when connected to AC power. (This cooling block could take the place of the battery block)

    So maybe the "volumetric efficiency" is not the best compared to other general purpose phones, but then I can configure for various purposes while on the go.
    Reply
  • Rogerdodge1 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    I think a lot of people are missing something when they comment on this article saying it cant be done. I accept that there are some technical challenges, and some tradeoffs to be made for this to be a possibility, but lets look at what would actually be required for this to function as intended.

    1. You need an operating system that can handle the wide variety of devices that might be embedded into the blocks that would be attached to the frame, and the disconnection and reconnection thereof. I don't know if android actually has any way currently to add drivers once the kernel has been compiled, but Google can certainly add that capability in a future version. Remember this is a Google/Motorola project, the software will be there.

    2. You need a frame (endoskeleton in the article) that will hold all the pieces you want to connect. This needs to have a connector for the screen on one side, and connectors for the battery, cpu, and other blocks, on the opposite side. The way that makes the most sense to handle the side with most of the connectors is to have the connectors set up in a grid, determined by the smallest size block that will be mounted to the frame. Lets use a hypothetical grid of 4x10 for a small phone. All blocks would be 1,2 or 4 wide, but height would be any integer smaller than 8. If you limit the battery to the bottom of the frame, you only need 1 connector for power but you can still choose how large a battery you need. Multiple batteries only adds unneeded expense and complexity, while not giving you the capacity of a single larger battery. We can also assume the smallest battery will be a minimum of 50% of the size of the phone. If you also limit the placement of the cpu to a specific location(the cpu will need more connectors than anything else unless the frame acts like an active hub to get data from all the other devices to the cpu), probably near the top to keep it out of the way of the largest battery that can be mounted, you only need interchangeable connectors in a fraction of the total grid area. If you use spring loaded contacts like what you currently see in most phones for sim cards you can make the blocks cover as many connectors as you want, just make the blocks out of plastic. Unused contacts are just ignored. The cpu block would probably need a small built in capacitor to prevent a brief loss of power from causing a crash and reboot. The engineering isnt trivial, but it isnt an insurmountable task either.

    3. You need companies to build the add-on blocks for the phone. All the comments seem to assume that the companies who would be doing this would be the current phone OEM's. I agree that some of the phone OEMS would have something to contribute,(samsung for instance makes displays, memory, and cpus for phones) but the companies with the best incentive to make the add-on blocks would be the companies that make things that go into the phones currently. Why wouldnt Nvidia want to sell Tegras, or Qualcom sell their Snapdragons directly to end users for their phones? Or Nokia sell their cameras? Selling components like those directly to end users would have a much higher mark up per unit than selling them in bulk to phone companies. The companies that make these components have never had a way to sell their products directly to end users. They are too dependant on other companies to get their products to end users in a functional configuration. Sure the custom market would be smaller overall, but if they achieved dominance in the custom market, they could use that to leverage more wins in the tightly integrated pre-made phones(More people want our product than the other guys product. You don't want to chose the product people don't want in their phones for your phones, do you?).
    Reply
  • Cptn_Slo - Friday, November 8, 2013 - link

    Even if this concept becomes real, and I'm not entirely confident that it would, I don't think people are going to like the cost associated in building all of that extra interfacing into a phone. A phone like that would cost more to build than a similarly spec'd integrated smartphone, and people who are too cheap to upgrade every 2 years aren't gonna want to pay for that.

    I think google is better off in investing infrastructure to deliver cloud computing, once the infrastructure is there the service provider could just upgrade the servers to provide the users with a better experience, rather than the users upgrading their devices. Chromebooks will be the future... at some point.
    Reply
  • est.rahul - Monday, November 11, 2013 - link

    This is a real long shot. Remember laptop/PC's. When the manufacturers cannot come together to have a common standard for the desktop/laptop computers then how come they will think cohesively for mobile. Leave aside hardware, even the software requirements vary so widely across platforms that it is a nightmare to develop mobile apps (http://www.techendeavour.com) Reply
  • CreativeInsight.biz - Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - link

    Yes, the idea of a modular phone has several challenges. Would a user want a phone that can fall and split into several pieces? Will they have apprehensions regarding the availability of the modules in the market as and when they want? These are some of the queries a customer may have before he buys a modular phone.

    Pls participate in this survey to help us understand the mobile phone usage better. We would love to share the insight with Phonebloks and the Project Ara scouts.

    Here is the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/YMC7DJ2

    Courtesy: Creativeinsight.biz
    Reply

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