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Focus: what happened to modular smartphones?

Focus: what happened to modular smartphones?

In April 2013, Google began working on the so-called Project Ara, which theoretically should have had a global diffusion. For those who had never heard of it, it consisted in the creation of one or more modular smartphones, that is, modular with a series of modules at the user’s discretion.

Similarly to what happens today with desktop PCs, each of us could have built “his” smartphone, choosing the components that best suit his needs.. in Google’s vision, in fact, we would first have had to buy a “base”, a starter kit including only the body, display, battery, Wi-Fi module and a low-end processor, all for a figure of around $ 50, which it would therefore have helped its diffusion even in the poorest countries. This project though it has never seen the lightand there has been no news from him since the end of 2016, when he was suspended indefinitely.

But why has this idea not been successful?

Asked the question a few days ago, I tried to give a couple of answers, thinking of sharing them with you.

First of all we can begin our reflection by looking at the welcome received from two producers who have tried this pathalbeit in a more marginal way: we are talking about Fairphone 2 and LG G5, two smartphones for which the respective manufacturers have designed a series of additional “modules”, but limited to the battery and the camera.

The first, despite having as mitigating the fact that it does not represent a brand known all over the world, sold only 40,000 units in a year, while the second was a real flop for the Seoul-based company., who preferred to return to a “classic” design with the G6. We can probably attribute this cold reception by the market to the excessive cost of the modules compared to that of the smartphone: to buy the module with amplifier, 127 € on Amazon is currently required. I believe at this point anyone would be inclined to think: “But if the phone already costs (let’s say) 500 €, instead of paying 20% ​​more to have a module that also” pisses it off “, it would not be better to spend this money on a smartphone with better audio quality or buy a product specific for listening to music? “.
Obviously this leads to the triggering of a vicious circle: the entrepreneurial idea of ​​LG is not enthusiastic due to the costs of the modules, the demand remains low, the supply must therefore be at rather low levels, so goodbye economies of scale, development, licensing and other useful means to lead to a significant reduction in costs that could favor an increase in demand.

Then, from a purely technical point of view, it is not at all easy to make components capable of cooperating efficiently: first of all you need a technology (for example magnets) capable of allowing immediate fixing and disassembly, while ensuring solidity and stability at the same time. Not to be overlooked is the considerable energy consumption compared to traditional parts welded together, the need to adopt a universal standard for all modules, in order to avoid excessive market segmentation, and to develop software for the optimal management of these components. .

Finally, another point in my opinion fundamental to take into consideration is the search by the average user for a ready-made phone out of the box, that does not require the purchase of new accessories to be exploited to the fullest, nor of all the fundamental components, as should have happened with Ara.Can you imagine your 50/60 year old mother, who has recently entered the world of smartphones, extricating herself between dozens of different SOCs or totally different camera sensors? What the public wants (and the foresight of the late Steve Jobs must be recognized on this) is simplicity and immediacy of useet from the point of view of the user interface, et from the point of view of the hardware, which if it should not be more performing as we expect, it can be easily replaced in its entirety.

Ultimately, therefore, modular smartphones, although conceptually fascinating, they are still an immature technology, which in my opinion is very unlikely to invade the market and end up in the hands of billions of people. By now the entire smartphone production adopts a broadly consolidated design, which in the field of business management we would define “dominant design”, and perhaps the smartest choice to make would be to focus on significant software improvements, on killer features capable of making their products are attractive.