Phonebloks was a campaign that focused upon attracting the interest of OEMs by showing that there was an incredible amount of interest for a modular phone. This was mostly for reasons of reducing electronics waste, the potential for incredible customization, and the potential for reduced upgrade costs associated with the 1-2 year upgrade cycle. As the current model requires the purchase of an entire phone, upgrading a single “module”, or a set of modules that would update the device would reduce the cost of upgrading to the consumer, much like the current desktop PC system of upgrading individual components.

However, at the time it seemed unlikely that such a campaign would ever produce a meaningful result in the industry. Now, it might be less so as Motorola announced Project Ara, a platform that promises the same modularity that the Phonebloks campaign was promoting, and has also partnered with the creator of the Phonebloks campaign for this project.The concept is largely the same, with an endoskeleton and modules that make up the phone. The display, following the Phonebloks concept, is also likely to be its own module. While actual details of the concept are effectively nil, there are still an enormous number of challenges that such a design would face.

The first would be from a purely hardware perspective, as there is an unavoidable tradeoff between volumetric efficiency and modularity in such a design. While modern smartphones are effectively a tight stack of PCB, battery, and display, this adds in an entire interface for each module that connects them together. This means that the memory module would effectively go from the size of an average eMMC chip to around a full-size SD card due to the need for a durable interface that would connect it to the rest of the phone. This is most readily seen by the differences between the international and Korean LG G2, as the international variant has a ~15% larger battery by virtue of the sealed design that allowed for LG Chemicon’s curved battery pack with thinner walls to allow for more battery capacity.

The second issue in this case would be regulatory, as the FCC only tests single configurations for approval. Such a design would be incredibly challenging to get approval for as there could easily be unpredictable RF behavior from unexpected behavior from a specific setup of modules, or issues with the endoskeleton portion because the modules aren't all part of a single PCB that is unlikely to suffer issues with short circuits or other connection issues, while a modular design would face such challenges.

The final major issue is that of history, as the failure of Intel’s Whitebook initiative from 2006 makes it much harder to see a similar initiative succeeding in the smartphone space. As the Whitebook initiative promised a DIY, modular laptop, much like Phonebloks and Project Ara, and failed due to the rise of completely integrated laptop designs such as the Apple rMBP line, it seems unlikely that such a project would succeed without significant compromise, either in modularity or in competitiveness with the more integrated smartphones. While laptops like the rMBP are effectively impossible for the user to repair, much less open, they have become incredibly popular, and the PC OEMs have followed Apple’s lead in this regard, with consumer demand generally tending towards thinner and lighter laptops, just as the same demand seems to occur in the smartphone space, it is difficult to see such an initiative succeeding. While such initiatives are sure to garner widespread enthusiast support, enthusiasts generally lose their ability to influence the market once a market segment becomes popular with general consumers, as can be seen by the PC industry. However, it remains to be seen whether there is mass-market appeal for such a phone, and it may well be that Motorola is tapping a niche with enormous potential.


Source: Motorola

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  • ShieTar - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Well, sorry kid, but that's exactly how development works. Everybody on the edge of technology is just testing around. We know how to do smartphones of the present now, and nobody knows what smartphones of the future will be like, so every attempt is valid.

    And honestly, you think the hardware concept is bad, so you decide that the "software will suck"? Who did you think you would convince with that statement?
  • Ungo - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Try again. I'm a 40 year old hardware engineer, not a kid. Experience is why I judged that the hardware concept sucks, and is also related to why I "decided" that the software will suck.

    A few years ago I got hired by a fabless semi company to work on the first SoC of my career. After that chip taped out, I got to watch how difficult it is to deliver software for a complex SoC, since we're in a market where many customers need the chip and software as a package deal. The chip is somewhat like a phone SoC in complexity except for not having a GPU, and the software we have to deliver is less complex in some areas (no GUI) and more in others (networking).

    So I can tell you that it's hard even when the software team has to integrate just one SoC with a small number of off-chip peripherals in a very limited number of configurations. The "phoneblok" concept blows up the number of potential combinations of hardware and software. There is a reason why (to pick the obvious example) Microsoft has to maintain huge testing labs doing WHQL driver certification, and that's just the tip of the iceberg in the PC market.

    Since only a tiny number of geeks really want to build their own custom phones out of lego-like "bloks", there's obviously not going to be any entity with the resources (or motivation, same difference) to spend what needs to be spent on software integration engineering. It's not like the PC industry where the ecosystem of interchangable parts grew organically out of the PC's origins in the 1980s; this is an established market where the gold standard is a highly integrated phone, and it's easy to see that the public loves them and for the most part won't switch. It follows that either your choices of "bloks" and how to combine them are going to be very limited, or the software is going to suck. Or (most likely) both.

    Finally, the idea that everybody on the edge of tech is just "testing around" is a kid's naive idea of how the industry works. In fact, the idea that this is even on the edge of tech is naive. You seem to nobody knows how to make it work yet, so you just shrug and declare it a valid effort. Actually, my objection is that it looks an awful lot like things that have been done before, and based on past experiences it's easy to predict how this will go without adequate investment. (Which is unlikely to materialize, since ultimately this is a classic solution looking for a problem nobody had.)
  • raptorious - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Amen. I currently work for a fabless semi company, and I can tell you, integration is enough of a nightmare. "Plug n' play" would be a disaster.
  • willis936 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Now this is interesting. Get Aptina, Qualcomm, Samsung, and LG to sign on and you'd have yourself a story.
  • Gadgety - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    I really like the idea for two reasons: I can tailor, and retailor, my own device, and it's less wasteful. As always though, it's the implementation that counts, so it will be dependent providing true choice, quality parts, and a wide spec range so this doesn't become just a "mid level" phone.

    Looking how compact todays phones are, this modular approach is likely to become bulkier. Interesting, though, how Microsoft's Surface Pro is basically not repairable, and computers seem to become more "products," while this phone concept sort of goes back to the modular pc idea. There was an Israeli company, Modu, with a similar idea a while back, but that didn't quite hit home. It's all in timing I guess.
  • JensWeissflog - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    "and it's less wasteful."

    Let's be honest here: how many components of a smartphone would you really want to keep when the normal two years are up? Not the display or the cpu, not the camera and most likely not the battery. Maybe some radios and some memory blocks, if they can be used to expand new memory. Considering that they all need to be cased separately, packed separately, transported and all that stuff, the 'less waste' arguments wears kind of thin. And more so if you keep constantly buying new components to update your phone and the old ones pile up in a drawer.

    I feel the current model is just smarter, especially if you recycle your old phones, so the precious rare metals can be reused.
  • Sunburn74 - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Honestly, all I would like would be able to update my cell phone processor as new models are released without having to buy an entirely new phone.
  • easp - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    Would you like to have your battery life cut at the same time?
  • ShieTar - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    If it means one less Nigerian kid wasting its health while burning phones to get at the valuable metal inside? Yeah, why the hell not, I for one sure can deal with a bit less battery life.
  • Gunbuster - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link

    I think this falls under the category of something that's easy to make look cool in 3DS Max or Lightwave when you've not talked to any of the engineers that will have to make it actually work.

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