February 25, 2015

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Smartphone Declining Cost Ushers The Rise of Modular Smartphones

The declining cost of Smartphones

As the cost of smartphones with decent features decline year on year, studies by research firm IDC indicate that growth in sales will be driven by consumers in the Asia-Pacific region. The drop in prices being the key driver for this growth.

The dominant consumer group for this is the middle class in these countries who have disposable income. These are consumers who have always aspired to have phones with features hitherto available only in high end flagship phones. This has now changed with manufacturers innovating to provide these features at an affordable price.

The demand for high end smartphones is slowing, and this is forcing companies to focus on the budget market. This is a challenge for erstwhile market leaders like Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile), Samsung and Apple but not for newer entrants whose main focus seem to be on meeting this demand at a pocket-friendly price.

The latest software and hardware updates are now available faster than ever before. Earlier, consumers would use their phone for quite a few years before going in for an upgrade. Due to the change in the market dynamics, consumers can now upgrade their phones at more frequent intervals without making a dent in their pocket. They are enticed by the ever increasing hardware and software features; for example: more mega-pixels in the camera, higher processing power, more RAM, more internal storage and support for additional external storage, access to faster data network speeds through 4G, and the latest version of the operating system, amongst others.

Manufacturers are stumbling over each other to grab as much market share as possible. Is this a Win-Win for all?

Modular Smartphones

While the rate of replacement of our white goods increases, this directly poses a challenge for the environment due to increased strain (resource demand, pollution, etc.).  Solutions that help in the recycle of materials in the manufacturing and packing process are being implemented in response to calls for behaving in an environmentally responsible manner.  I would like to present another track of technological innovation that aims to satisfy the end-user's thirst.

Desktop computers - and to an extent, laptop computers have always been upgradeable. Components could easily be swapped as and when there was a desire to increase performance or add new features. This contributed directly to their longevity in our homes and offices.

“A modular smartphone is a smartphone made using different components (alternatively called bloks) that can be independently upgraded or replaced. This aims to reduce electronic waste, lower repair costs, and increase user comfort.” [Reference: Wikipedia]

Although forays were made in this direction earlier, I wish to draw your attention to a concept introduced in 2013 called PhoneBloks. This particular concept by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens gained attention due to its modular approach. The principle was to simply change a “Blok” each time you need to either replace or upgrade a particular functional component of the system, such as the camera or the processor. These units would click together like LEGO blocks. The designer envisioned a future where the entire phone need not be discarded in order to attain the latest or improved set of features.

With this in mind, I will tell you about Google's Project Ara, which is the latest headline grabber. This project is a collaboration of Google (Motorola) with PhoneBloks and is named after the Google project entity’s lead engineer. The project is under the purview of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) organization. This organization remained with Google even after it hived off Motorola.

It gives the user an endoskeleton to which various modules can be attached by special wireless capacitive interconnects, which are said to be more reliable and smaller than physical contacts. The project group wishes to use a new connection standard called UniPro – Unified protocol (“UniPro version 1.6 concentrates on enabling high-speed point to point communication between chips in mobile electronics”) to overcome the bandwidth concerns caused by the physical distance between modules. These modules fulfil the basic functional requirements of a phone as well as can provide additional features.  The user is given full license to build the phone as per their requirements giving it a degree of personalization that no manufacturer has been able to provide so far.

Modules can be hot-swapped at your whim and fancy while the device is on. Even the battery is a module so you could slide in an additional one when you want extra backup. Imagine a world where you could slot in a camera when you are at a tourist attraction, slot in additional speakers for your own portable party, add a GPS module to perform navigation, a memory module to boost internal memory, and as some point out, attach specialist sensors to check ambient air, water or soil quality for those with niche requirements. You could potentially do all that and more!

Google is initially testing the waters in Puerto Rico. A majority of this country accesses the internet via mobile phones, and has a diverse mobile user community as well as network providers. These were some of the reasons given by the project team at the launch event.

A Module Developers Kit (MDK) is available to assist developers create modules that provide the individual features of the phone using reference module designs. 3D printers could one day be used by you to print your own module by buying specifications from the developer without ever having to go to a shop.

The key to user interest will be the price, as many industry commentators say. The project team says that the Bill of Materials (BoM) for a device is in the range of USD 50-100. They also hope that developers will drive the prices of various modules just like how application developers do currently in software marketplaces. Indeed if the price and feature set is enticing enough, budget smartphone enthusiasts can certainly be weaned away from traditional budget offerings.

A concept module named “amphion” introduced by the audio company Sennheiser recently is said to be a response to a PhoneBloks community request for high grade audio recording and playback capability.  Another company called Vestigen is looking into developing modules with smart sensors (air quality and blood tests are just some of their ideas).

Let us see how the project team and the rest of the technology community takes this forward, and if they can make this interesting concept into a mass-market reality.

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