The Future Of Enthusiast-Class Mobile Devices Is Modular And Magical

Look at your smartphone. Do you love it? Do you hate it? Is the screen cracked? Is the camera junky? Is the phone too slow? As things stand now, it doesn’t matter what you think; if you like your phone, fine, but if there’s anything you don’t like about it, the only thing you can really do is buy a new one.

But this current paradigm of smartphones being a single, un-upgradeable unit is shifting, and it could very well change everything about the mobile industry for the better...

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Much of this shift comes from a design concept called Phonebloks, which is a modular idea for smartphones. What that means is that instead of being one piece of hermetically sealed hardware, your phone would be comprised of several modules dedicated to specific tasks that would all connect to a skeleton or board.

Phoneblocks Concept
Phonebloks concept (Credit: Phonebloks)

For example, you would have a display module, a camera module, a speaker module, a processor module, and so on. If you wanted to upgrade any single module, you could do so.

Let’s say you take a lot of pictures and video and want to have a better camera than the 5MP module currently onboard your phone. You could just buy a snazzier camera module with better optics and more megapixels and swap it out with the old one.

That whole notion may seem like a pipe dream that some company, far into the future, might one day toy with, but it’s not. It’s happening right now.

Motorola’s corporate imagination and the Phonebloks concept jibe quite well, and the company is actively developing this modular smartphone idea as a real platform with its Project Ara.
Project Ara - Motorola
Project Ara concept (Credit: Motorola)

Simply put, Motorola--which is owned by Google and therefore has access to the latter’s deep pockets and wealth of human ingenuity--is working on creating an endoskeleton and corresponding modules to give users a platform by which they can completely customize their own phones. Project Ara’s aim is to offer a modular platform that is also open, so development can happen organically.

It’s hard to overstate how important this development could be for the mobile industry. For one thing, it creates entire new markets for modules and related innovations. (Remember when a whole industry sprung up around making accessories for the iPhone after it debuted for the first time? Think that, but several times greater.) New companies can make their bones on specialized modules, and existing companies can offer new ranges of products. One company might specialize in superb displays while another might provide (for lack of a better term) the motherboards that all the modules will connect to. Meanwhile, consumers are the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll get choice and competition for their dollars.
Project Ara - Motorola
Project Ara concepts (Credit: Motorola)

Further, modular smartphones will engage the enthusiast market in a powerful way. “Enthusiasts” are those people who build their own computers, obsess about which components to buy, and spend liberally to upgrade those components at relatively frequent intervals. Currently, enthusiasts’ attention is focused primarily on PCs, but the full force of their interest (financial and otherwise) to smartphones will score huge gains for every company involved.

Best of all, a modular approach could foster greater innovation industry-wide, delivering unprecedented leaps in mobile technology. The faster innovation develops on the high-end, the faster it trickles down to the lowest ends of the market.

Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, there are some major hurdles to overcome. The largest is that there are currently no universal standards for how to connect these modules to a board. That’s something that companies industry-wide are likely to support, which is good, but even so it will take time.

Project Ara is ambitious, though. The team has already done “deep technical work”, and within months it will send out invitations for developers to begin creating modules with an alpha release of the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK).

So yes, it will take some time before a modular, open smartphone is something you can customize, buy, and upgrade, but make no mistake: The future of mobile is coming, probably sooner than you think, and that future is glorious.