Forgotten Tech: Modular Smartphones

Ever wondered why most people would rather get a full-sized desktop computer over a laptop? Well, the price-to-performance ratio is one thing, but there’s another, more important reason for it — upgradability.That’s right. The ability to switch out parts from the system and to make incremental upgrades or isolated repairs is what keeps desktop computers relevant in this era of the mobile gadget Armageddon. Rather than having to throw out the entire system because of a faulty part, you can simply switch that part out for a new one.

Now, this was the very premise upon which modular smartphones were built. There was a worthy attempt at this concept by Google, but that was several years ago — in 2018, modular smartphones are obviously nowhere to be seen.

Google’s Project Ara was the forerunner for this technology and it truly coincided with what a modular smartphone ought to be. And while many people will probably point out the LG G5 and the Motorola Z series, a distinction has to be made here. Unlike Project Ara, these two iterations have modules that functioned more as accessories rather than phone vitals.

So, now that that’s out of the way, why didn’t true smartphone modularity ever see the light of day? Simple — nobody wanted them.

It’s just one of those concepts that’s extremely attractive in theory but arduous in reality. I mean, think about it, the prospect of being able to decide what modules you want to prioritize in your phone will essentially eliminate the possibility of planned obsolescence (if that’s indeed a thing). But really, would you truly want to worry about things like choosing between a great camera, or a great processor, or a great battery?

The average consumer is going to want all these things, which is why they’re just going to buy the entire smartphone. Nobody wants to be pestered about what parts to partner with which parts, when the decision to buy a smartphone could be so simple as choosing a smartphone that you want and paying for it.

And then there’s the prospect of compatibility. And no, I’m not just talking about inter-parts compatibility. I’m talking about compatibility between parts made by different manufacturers. It’s one problem that has plagued the PC building realm since it’s conception and quite frankly, that’s not about to change — these are PC hobbyists we’re talking about here.

The average consumer isn’t going to even want to dabble in the mess that we call “compatibility”. It’s difficult enough to deal with in terms of PC-building. And, well, this modularity also forces every phone manufacturer to produce parts in a way that makes them compatible with parts from other companies.

The problem here is that at the end of the day all phones are bound to look like the same boring block of Lego-esque components. While you could argue that the custom internals are the way that users could personalize their phones, this move would essentially throw out decades of research and development done by each phone manufacturer.

And while we currently live in a time when phones either come with a notch or without (by the way, thanks for that, Apple), personally I don’t mind because phone manufacturers are forced to innovate. Samsung came up with the Infinity Display, and Apple, while not the first to come up with the notch — that award goes to the Essential Phone —, it was the first to popularize its use. Chinese phone manufacturers like Vivo and Oppo each came up with their own iteration of motorized cameras that allow for a fully bezel-less display.

It’s these designs and the freedom of the consumers to choose their poison that makes the smartphone industry such a blast to move in. And while I sometimes complain at how the smartphone industry is so oversaturated, I’m secretly happy about it because of all the different options a consumer can choose from. Starting with the humble, yet reliable budget phones, to the lordly flagships, to the niche phones such as the Razer gaming phone, there’s already a phone for every demographic. Adding modularity would simply be ad nauseam at this point.

The other reason why smartphone modularity wasn’t going to fly was in terms of production. Have you ever wondered why the United States still uses the dated Imperial system of measurement, while the rest of the world is using metric? For the same reason — production.

Imagine having to refit, retool, and retrain every known industry for the sake of “keeping up with the times.” That’s a lot of money thrown out the window, a waste of existing tools, and a waste of currently available assets. And not to mention, you’d have to retrain a lot of workers to adapt to the newly-adopted system of measurement.

Smartphone parts are readily available, but do phone manufacturers really want to develop an entirely different line of parts for the sake of “keeping with the times”? Absolutely not. Do they want to make a significant number of processors, each with varying capabilities to suit what the users want? No. Because we already have that to a certain degree.

There’s no need to throw a wrench in the machine. As far as upgrading goes, well, it’s a rather simple affair. There are several platforms depending on how you want to sell your phone. BankMyCell is one of the best platforms to sell your old phone, while eBay is great if you prefer to auction it off. The rules are rather simple. Sell your old device to get more money for a new phone. It’s just the way things are. And quite frankly, it’s just the way things should be.

If smartphone companies truly wanted to help reduce the carbon footprint that comes from disposed phones, then they should at least try to adopt Samsung’s system where consumers are able to get a discount for trading in their old phones. The amount may vary of course, depending on the condition of the phone you’re trading in. And while it’s not an ideal solution, I strongly believe that as opposed to smartphone modularity, this is, at least, a step in the right direction.

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