Debate: Modular Smartphones, Are we Ready for Them? Are They Ready for Us?

Debate: Modular Smartphones, Are we Ready for Them? Are They Ready for Us?

When most of us were children, we loved taking things apart. I recall my first toy, I took it apart curious to know what was inside and what made the sounds. In most cases, when these things were torn apart, they never worked again regardless of our efforts to fix them.  Our parents would scold us, but we had already achieved our goal.

Google’s Project Ara is the first major move towards achieving consistent, thoughtful and standardized modularity on smartphones. Announced in October 2013, Google envisioned a phone that can be torn apart and brought back together again. The idea is brilliant; think of the possibilities, users can piece together the ideal smartphone to perfectly meet their needs. On paper, this is perfect. Who wouldn’t want to use this?

Until now, phone upgrades have been restricted to smaller and set changes, but with a modular structure in place, it takes things to a whole new level. A manufacturer can focus on creating a base flagship, then pump it up with new add-ons to retain interest and grow followers on the product for a while before making another one. The base model can remain untouched while having a steady flow of modules.

So far no one has managed to do this right, as creating the modular phone hasn’t been easy. For Google’s Ara, it has suffered many delays. Things quietened down, until LG came up with the G5. You see, the launch of the LG G5 brought a fresh awareness and hope to the sustainability of modularity, but how far can this go? The LG G5 is an awesome phone no doubt, with a Snapdragon 820 chip, a dual-lens wide-angle camera, a microSD card slot, high-resolution screen, etc.  On top of that, you have modularity (even if gimmicky)

The concept as it is employed by LG is not devoid of inherent problems. For one thing, this move by LG smells more of desperation to gain market share than truly transforming how we interact with our devices. If not priced right, users can be scared from buying extra modules for their devices. Another big issue is the disparity of modules. If every manufacturer starts making their own modules, that would restrict it to just a particular device. We hope to see a standard through which one module would work on any smartphone, to which everyone (interested in making modular phones) must adhere to. Similar to having phone makers stick with the 3.5 mm audio jack or, a particular charging port.

In spite of all this, there have been encouraging signs. It was heart warming to see the Ara project really kicking off. At I/O held earlier this week, Google, showcased the Ara phone working smoothly (it booted this time!). At one point the representative said “Okay Google, eject the camera.” The crowd applauded as the camera slid free. The modules seem to be controlled directly via software, which is a good thing. There is also information that the Ara developer phone will arrive before the end of this year, with a consumer version arriving in 2017.

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With all this said, Project Ara is bound to generate interest and introduce new ideas – particularly to the mainstream – once it becomes available. The modular smartphone has been in the making for years, so at this point in time we expect Google to have something worth showing when the developer edition hits later this year. Until then, we can only discuss, so we ask you:

Can we say that smartphone modularity is still a gimmick, or does it have a clearly useful future? Leave a comment below and join the discussion!

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