DailyDirt: Does Anyone Really Want A Modular Smartphone?

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

The US smartphone market is currently dominated by Apple and Samsung for hardware, but that could change pretty quickly if consumers were offered something a bit more innovative than a bigger phablet. One concept that’s been floating around is a modular phone that allows its owner to swap out various components — making a customizable phone that could have a bigger battery or a better camera, depending on user preferences (instead of Apple or Samsung’s upgrade cycle). If you haven’t been following the modular phone projects out there, here are a few links — if you think you can wait a year (or forever) to buy one.

If you’d like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.

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Companies: apple, circular devices, google, kickstarter, motorola, samsung, vsenn

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Comments on “DailyDirt: Does Anyone Really Want A Modular Smartphone?”

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lostalaska (profile) says:

So hopeful, but...

…having been a geek that enjoys building his own custom computers and tinkers with Arduino’s (almost got my 3D Reprap Prusa built) and Raspberry Pi’s there’s a lot of hurdles they’re going to need to be able to jump to make this happen. Things like bus speed that increases significantly for every new chip generation or standards for how it all connects so 3rd party devices can be used too. With all the advancements we’ve had in the past decade with making digital sensors smaller and smaller I see the potential for these kinds of modular phones to be potentially portable x-ray scanners or blood test kits. If you have decent storage and powerful chip in your hand things like spectrometers and such could become cheap enough for citizen scientists to use. The potential is huge, but it all depends on the implementation. I sure hope Google’s ATAP can pull it off because the potential is staggering.

Rachel Keslensky (user link) says:

As someone who's swapped out components on all her previous machines since college...

… I’d love to see it happen, but I don’t think it can because the variety in components is just too risky.

Unless there was a tightly-controlled system whose consistency helped ensure that modular components COULD be swapped out with relative ease — say, the way Apple’s ecosystem works — the average person is not about to start tinkering with a device 90% of them depend on working first time every time.

(And yes, I know Apple is not exactly the poster child of DIY, but the variation between machines is so slight that modularity makes sense — because if you’re reasonably certain it works in ONE Mac, it’ll work in ALL Macs. Without that you’re basically only appealing to the crowd that builds their own desktops now and is willing to gamble with components, which is… a very tiny fraction of the current community, certainly too small for a viable business model.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Customization at the factory assembly level, maybe, but upgrading modules every few months, not likely.
Problem with this has always been the cost of the upgrades is almost as expensive as getting a new device. And most everything gets upgraded with a new device.
How many people actually upgrade parts in their desktop anymore? Every two years, we have new memory and chip types, which require a new motherboard. To use faster newer drives, you typically also need the newer faster bus connectors.

Brakken (profile) says:

Good concept. However...

Perhaps the SoC separate from the storage separate from the screen, and these separate from radios, with the OS run from the net. Battery wireless charging, Bluetooth for all other accessories including headphones so no physical plug is necessary. Carbon fibre casings? All controls on-screen. Maybe the screen would need to house the mice and speakers, and act as the base of the device to reduce weight, rather than have a central third layer to hold everything together.

The only immediate advantage would be parts replacement, as this device would be slow and prone to damage.

Christenson says:

What I *want* in my modular phone toy

What the smartphones and tablets have done is make available all kinds of sizes of computers as part of the regular computer market. Smartphones, like the desktops before them, will become operator consoles for all kinds of things. I see the barriers to entry into the basic smartphone market being too high to support a modular phone. But I do see all kinds of phone accessories that will start looking more and more like something you clipped on the back of your phone. Maybe somebody will realize that the right connector for this stuff is something that stacks on the back of the phone, plugging into the side makes no sense for something that is to be more or less a part of the phone itself.

Here is my wish list, in my current use-case:

Much more powerful, efficient antenna (more gain, and steerable lobes). My toy lives just far enough away from its towers the battery runs down in about 24 hours.

Tactile Phone keyboard. Smartphones are more dangerous while driving because you have to LOOK at them to find the silly keys! (I can just feel my way around on my dumb phone, now what WAS the point of the smooth back on my iPhone?).

Extra, folding screen real-estate. Stupid screen already requires my glasses for me to see things on it! And no, don’t connect it with Bluetooth, I already radiate way too much information in the RF bands!

Everybody knows about the “more battery” problem, and you can get them in stores today.

Other “phone” sized accessories, such as a backup box. Packet Sniffer? Keep track of those stingrays with my analyzer? Run IR or UV spectroscopy for air pollution? A Gas Chromatography head? Thermal camera? UV camera? Cosmic ray imager? Each of these should clip to the back of my phone.

Christenson says:

Re: Re: What I *want* in my modular phone toy

I MUST be first, and I MUST troll the patent, lol! No one else can possibly have the same idea when faced with the same problem! (lol) Everyone else MUST be wrong, especially about swapping out the radio interfaces!! (lol, NOT!)

Springboard is the right functional concept…but probably needs a more robust electromechanical power/data connector system — I don’t like bent pins! How about optical signalling?

Javarod (profile) says:

I’ve been fond of the idea of modular cell phones for a while m’self, its just a matter of the execution.

There are times when i want to carry little more than a pager with me, and other times when i’d like to carry basically an entire computer. If i had a core module that could like to the wireless peripherals (displays, input devices, hands free, etc) of my choice, i’d be real happy. Just mix and match what suits my needs at the time. And imagine the commercial applications, the ability to equip employees based on the specific needs of their jobs easily and cheaply.

Christopher (profile) says:

The killer module

The cellular radio.

Forget the camera or battery. Those are nice drop-ins and sure, a keyboard slider back would be my compulsory mod, but the cell radio is your killer module.

Samsung builds a cell phone, and you buy a Verizon radio for it. Drop it in like a SIM. You want to switch to AT&T? Buy the radio, drop it in. Done.


Anon says:

Not Going to Fly

I can’t see a modular phone being any great appeal. The value of phones, tablets, laptops is that they are all in one – the thing out of the box pretty much has all you’ll need.

If I put together a wish list, it would be this:
Configure the phone – case and connectors – so the extra functionality snaps on the back, sort of like the snap-on back-mounted cellphone batteries from the “good old days”. Even better, make them cascading – add-ons should accommodate another add-on. (I imagine a device the same size as an iPhne, but with a prong that fits in the iPhone connector slot. The phone case would have the necessary shape to allow this to lock on.)

The only other thing I would add would be a micro-sd slot for added/removable RAM. They got a SIm slot, add uSD.

Then – want additional functionality that does NOT come with the phone – it clamps on. Need a credit-card reader to make it a POS (no, not that – I mean a point-of-sale device). Want a bigger battery? Want a fancier, 3D camera? Want multiple USB master slots, so you can plug in a keyboard, mouse, DVD reader? HDMI out? VGA/ Thunderbolt? Extended storage for much longer video recording?

This avoids these silly add-ons that are an invitation to break, like that square for reading credit cards, and avoids fudging things like input via the microphone.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Not Going to Fly

“The value of phones, tablets, laptops is that they are all in one”

That’s the value of them? I never even considered that as the value — in fact, I always thought just the opposite. The non-modular nature of them is a drawback that we have to put up with to get other benefits (lowered price, smaller size, etc.)

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not Going to Fly

That’s the value of them? I never even considered that as the value — in fact, I always thought just the opposite.

I think it’s very valuable to put one thing in my pocket and have a phone, computer, calculator, music player, flashlight, GPS, etc. with me, rather than having to carry all those things separately if I want them.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Not Going to Fly

We’re talking about completely different things here. I thought you were talking about nonmodularity being an advantage. My mistake.

Actually going back and reading again I think I’m the one who misunderstood. I’m not really sure how being modular could be a disadvantage. It’s not as though a phone wouldn’t come with all the features and components they have now.

Doug D (profile) says:

Bespoke will do for me.

I’d take “bespoke” over “modular” if that’s easier for the manufacturers to pull off.

The thing is, I want to be able to specify things like “give me a 3.5 inch screen”, “I do not need any camera at all”, “I do not need bluetooth at all”, and “I don’t need a gyroscope or compass”.

Modular phones would be a way for me to do that, but so would bespoke phones.

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