Awesome Stuff: The Modular Smartphone... Case

from the modularization,-modularized dept

Not too long ago, people got pretty excited about the idea of a "modular smartphone", and recently Google announced that it would be launching its attempt at such a device in Puerto Rico this year. The idea has also sparked a lot of debate, with some saying the sacrifice of size and/or power needed to create something modular would be too great. But there's one idea I don't recall anyone bringing up at the time: moving the whole modular concept off of the phone and onto a phone case. This week, we're looking at the nexpaq, which does just that:

The Good

There's something very appealing about the modular components, as they seem to strike most people as something that just makes sense. Obviously with them living as extras on the case rather than being part of the phone, some of the original idea's efficiency and space-saving appeal is lost — but that was already debatable (though we'll see what Google comes up with) and I think most people were far more drawn to the modular function itself as a matter of convenience and coolness. It also makes the whole power situation a little easier to deal with: the case has a built-in battery pack (which helps run both the modules and your phone) and you can fill one of the modular slots with an additional battery pack component. This also means that the case can function independently: you can disconnect it from your phone, and still access the modules via Bluetooth. The other modules currently available in the Kickstarter include an amplified speaker, an SD card reader, a pair of physical programmable hotkeys, a laser pointer, a breathalyzer, a USB drive and several more diverse options which paint a good picture of the flexibility offered by the system. $109 gets you a case and four modules (which seems like a good price) and the current model is designed to be compatible with three very popular phones: the iPhone 6, Galaxy S6 Edge and the Galaxy S5.

The creators are also actively encouraging development of new modules and new software: there are several backer rewards specifically for developers. Though I can actually see the case still being popular with just a core lineup of useful modules, it will be really interesting if they succeed in building a community of developers who create new stuff all the time.

The Bad

There are a few things that remain unclear about the nexpaq, and a few details in the description that hint at potential limitations. For one thing, it sounds like most of the modules will only be accessible through the dedicated nexpaq app for now, and that compatibility will have to be built into other apps using the SDK. This may not be true of every module — it's possible that that the flash drive will be broadly accessible by the OS, for example — but it sounds like it might be if all of the modules are mediated through the case as a single peripheral rather than being separately accessible, hub-style. I doubt the blame for this falls on the creators: it's probably a limitation of the smartphones, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent in Android but certainly in iOS, but it still could be the flaw that sinks the nexpaq. Relatedly, the Bluetooth connectivity, while a nice feature, raises the question of whether Bluetooth will be required for some or all communication even when the case is connected, which would eliminate some of the elegance of the concept.

All this points to the key reason nexpaq might have trouble competing with Google's modular phone should it ever come to fruition: Google can build support for the modules directly into the operating system and make sure they are all accessible at a low-level as standard peripherals, so an SD reader module mounts cards normally and your existing Android apps automatically recognize a speaker module and so on; nexpaq will almost certainly have to limit at least some of its capabilities to its own app and those specifically designed to be compatible.

The Inevitable

Either way, it looks like we're going to find out: the nexpaq has already shot past its goal with nearly a full month still to go in the Kickstarter campaign. Despite my reservations, I'm happy to see it move forward, and eager to find out the answers to some of my questions. Their goal is to ship by January of next year, though as with all Kickstarter projects, delays are a likelihood.

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  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 3 May 2015 @ 9:28am

    Proprietary software is a necessary evil of early versions

    When Creative Labs came out with the SoundBlaster card, it'd only work like an Ad Lib card (as a modular sound organ). You had to use the proprietary SoundBlaster drivers if you wanted your program to play .WAV audio. (Uncompressed. mp3 hadn't been invented yet.)

    Now if the Nexpaq guys are smart, they'll open source the snot out of their driver code so that anyone who wants to can make apps to utilize their hardware. That even might make a difference as to whether or not Nexpaq sinks or floats in the modular long game.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 4 May 2015 @ 8:12am

      Re: Proprietary software is a necessary evil of early versions

      Proprietary software isn't a necessary evil of early versions at all. It's just what many (and certainly not all) hardware manufacturers choose to do.

      "(Uncompressed. mp3 hadn't been invented yet.)"

      Just a point of technical accuracy: True, mp3s didn't exist yet, but Creative Labs did have their own compressed audio format. It just never because standard (because it was proprietary). There were also a few third-party audio players that introduced their own compressed audio formats (I worked on one of them).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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