Don’t you love how accidents become inventions? That’s what happened in December 2012 when a fellow named Dave Hakkens broke a camera and tried to fix it. At the time he pondered what his favourite ice cream flavour was and why there was so much waste in electronics. The ice cream answer had to wait but the technology one led to the creation of Phonebloks – the first modular smartphone concept that actually got noticed.
This all-new, build-your-own phone idea got the attention of several big players in the world of electronics including Google (Project Ara), ZTE (Eco-Mobius), Xiaomi (Magic Cube), Circular Devices Oy (PuzzlePhone), Fonkraft (Pilot) and Fairphone (Fairphone 2). All but Phonebloks, Project Ara and PuzzlePhone have yet to pass the concept stage. However, there have been attempts made at releasing smartphones with modular accessories.
Although not truly modular smartphones, LG Electronics released its LG G5 in 2016 and Motorola unveiled the Moto Z. Project Ara, on the other hand, was to launch in 2017 but got pulled from development stage in late 2016. Earlier this year Facebook came out with a patent for their own modular smartphone and so far it’s anyone’s guess when any of us will actually get a chance to either ‘like’ or ‘share’ that one.
What has made the whole smartphone landscape shift a touch is the seismic activity generated from what kinds of features one can use to build-your-own modular smartphone. Picture Lego building blocks or a really simple puzzle that has not much more than six pieces and you get an idea of the personalization of your modular handheld device can become. Naturally, once the market explodes on the concept of swap ‘n’ change features, it’s going to get a bit nutty.
Remember when you had to put up with the in-house games and apps from Android before the big names started releasing Android versions of their products? This could be much the same minus the data usage to get something new to play with when out of range of an open wifi signal. The beauty of the modular pick ‘n’ play concept is that you only add on what you really want and skip the rest…without paying for the whole package.
So, what kinds of modules exist at the moment?
PuzzlePhone has a number that they list according to one of three component cluster locations (Spine, Brain or Heart). The Spine cluster is modules that would be used in relation to the smartphone’s screen, speakers or frame. The Brain cluster involves modules that are connected to the processor. The Heart is clustered to include the battery (duh!) and ‘other modules.’ But what exactly are the ‘features’ available in module form?
To keep it simple and easy to follow along, let’s go down the list alphabetically:
1 - Activity Tracker
As tempting as it may be to have an app track the calories you burn while couch surfing or sleeping, this tool is not used for that. However, it is a fave of the fitness crowd and does calculate a ton of those really important readings one would want to have to say they are burning calories, keeping their heart pumping and all that jazz.
2 – Altimeter
Because you never really know how high you are. We’re going to leave it at that.
3 – Antenna
When a tin foil hat no longer gets the job done and you really are trying to catch a little baseball play-by-play and don’t have satellite TV. It also makes it easier to pull in those wonky wifi signals that tend to get lodged between buildings, walls and other obstructions.
4 – Audio Jack
Who is this Jack fellow, anyway?
5 – Battery
Well, um. You kinda need this one so to be sure you don’t skip it the module is there.
6 – Bluetooth
Named after a Scandinavian raider (translation: pillager, brute, nasty dude), this nifty feature enables you to share, swap and whatever else you want with compatible devices.
7 – Camera
Because, it’s not technically a #selfie if someone else takes it and sends it to your smartphone via Bluetooth.
8 – Fingerprint Sensors
Okay, this is a bit too CSI for us, but someone’s gonna want this module. We can just taste it.
9 – GPS
Since no one reads road signs or addresses anymore, this is the only way to know where you are and where you’ve been for the past 20-minutes texting someone else.
10 – Gyroscope
Because science is more that dissecting frogs and making things explode.
11 – Speaker
So you can hear things explode when you watch YouTube videos about fails and stuff like that.
12 – Specialized Medical Applications
Instead of your doctor making a house call, you just call his virtual online clinic and upload your vital stats, include a #selfie of you bleeding and wait for a text telling you when the next available appointment time is. Press 1 for “yes, I accept that appointment time” or Press 2 for “too late, I died waiting to get in.”
13 – Storage
We’re not talking lockers or bins or drawers of any kind. This storage is of the RAM kind.
14 – Video Jack
There’s that Jack guy, again!
15 – Wifi
Well, who really wants to blow this month’s rent on data packages, anyway?
The Final Word
Modular smartphones are not exactly the future but they are sure part of it. Once every player gets on the same page, you will likely see a lot of progress and shifting of positions within the electronic world empire. What does that mean to you and me? Expect price wars, module wars and a lot of posturing until the bugs all get worked out of the system.The end result will be a cool tool in your pocket that may even function as a phone!