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Will modular smartphones finally take off in 2016?

After last year’s delays, Google’s Project Ara team and Finnish company Circular Devices are hoping for better luck in 2016 as they work to make modular smartphones a reality. But don’t get your hopes up too much; the challenges to make a proper go of it are still massive.

In a flurry of Twitter messages back in August, Google’s Ara team announced that plans for a test in Puerto Pico had been cancelled and the launch pushed forward to sometime in 2016. The development process had simply turned out to be more challenging than expected. “Lots of iterations... more than we thought,” Google said at the time.

The promise of modular smartphones is that users will be able to upgrade the camera, the storage, the processor or other parts by buying new modules instead of buying a new phone. This would give users more choice, instead of having to settle for the configurations vendors choose.

But that even a company like Google, with so many resources and smart people on staff, is struggling with turning the concept into real products highlights how difficult it is.

Google’s Twitter messages gave an insight into some of the challenges. Instead of launching a mediocre product that could very well have ended up doing more harm than good, the Ara team felt it necessary to go back to the drawing board and redo the way modules are attached and detached. Getting that right is of course key and the battery life also needed to be improved and then you can add to that a more complicated testing process to make sure all modules work properly and a larger bill of materials.

There is however one trend that will likely help modular smartphones, and that is less focus on weight. During the second half of last year a number of rather chubby products were launched, including Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus and the OnePlus 2. Also, the new Galaxy A7 from Samsung is at 172 grams over 20% heavier than its predecessor.  

Beyond sometime this year, the timing of the Ara phones remains a mystery. Since August, Google has gone quiet on its plans for Ara. Hopefully this doesn’t mean the project has fallen out of favor.

When asked about what the Ara team was currently working on, a company spokesperson simply said it didn’t have anything new to share at this time. The upcoming Mobile World Congress conference would be a great opportunity for the company to prove the project is alive and well though.

While Google went quiet, Circular Devices stepped up efforts to make the PuzzlePhone a reality, launching a campaign on Indiegogo to help raise funds and gauge interest. The campaign raised US$116,000, well short of its $250,000 goal, suggesting that few people are willing to bet on it succeeding, at least for now. In December, Circular Devices also announced a partnership with the Finnish city of Oulu, which will host the pilot deployment of the PuzzlePhone in 2016.

The Google and Circular Devices slot-based architectures aren’t the only way to do smartphone longevity and upgradability though. At the end of last year, Dutch company Fairphone launched its second smartphone, the Fairphone 2. The smartphone doesn’t offer slots, but has been architected to let users quick dismantle and put the phone together again. In the process, parts can be exchanged for new ones.

So far, Fairphone’s focus has been on increasing the lifecycle of the phone through durability and repairability, not on upgradeability. However, the Fairphone 2’s architecture enables upgrades and expansion without having to change the entire hardware, according to the company. The possibilities are quite broad and Fairphone is definitely going to explore them, it said via email.

The spare parts store now offers camera, display and what Fairphone calls top and bottom modules. The former houses the receiver, headset connector, ambient light and proximity sensor, front camera and noise-cancelling microphone. The latter contains the speaker, vibration motor, USB connector and primary microphone.

The next batch of the Fairphone 2 will start shipping in February. On February 1, Fairphone, which costs €529, had shipped almost 15,000 units, according to a counter on the company’s website.

The Fairphone 2 is a pretty cool smartphone, but it doesn’t have the specs to compete with similarly priced smartphones. If modular smartphones are to take off on a larger scale it’s hard to imagine that can continue to be the case.

LG Electronics, on the other hand, is rumored to be working on its own, simpler take on modularity.

The company’s upcoming G5 flagship will have hardware expansion in the form of a “magic module”. Instead of upgrading existing parts, the module will be used to add new functionality, including different kinds of cameras and a souped-up amplifier, according to a report on Venturebeat.

LG didn’t have a very good 2015 and needs to come up with something good to help the company bounce back. If the new module turns out to be real, it should at the very least give LG a lot of attention.

One question that lingers though is whether there is sufficient interest for modular smartphones. There little doubt there are consumers out there that want a smartphone with exchangeable cameras, screens and processors, but it remains to be seen if that’s enough for developing products and the needed ecosystem to make financial sense. But without risk, there is no reward, so here’s hoping that products do arrive before the end of the year.

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Mikael Ricknas

Mikael Ricknas has been writing about technology since joining Computer Sweden as a reporter in 1998. In 2008 he joined IDG News Service and moved to London in 2012. Today he works as a freelancer covering everything related to telecom and cloud services.

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