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Modular smartphones could’ve changed the world. Here’s why they died out instead

A phone is no longer just a phone. Smartphones are capable of carrying all kinds of applications, whether that’s snapping high-quality photos, playing games, making music, or any number of other uses. Through the use of downloadable apps, everyone can customize their handset’s home screens according to whatever they want to use the device for. No two phones have to be alike.

Wouldn’t it be great if this ethos extended to hardware as well?

Welcome to the world of modular phones: Smartphones made up of easily replaceable modules that can be hot-swapped in or out depending on what you want to do with it. Need a better speaker system? Snap one on. Fancy an improved camera? Extra battery pack? A built-in gamepad, portable projector, or receipt printer for your business? Just buy the component and add it to your handset like it was a smartphone built by Lego.

“[The idea of modular phones is that it’s] a phone that you can upgrade and repair,” Dave Hakkens, creator of open-source modular phone project Phonebloks, told Digital Trends. “If something gets broken, whether that’s your screen or your battery, you can just swap the part so it works again. Or if you want to upgrade it — let’s say a new camera component or a better Bluetooth sensor comes out — you can replace that part. You don’t have to throw away your entire phone; you only upgrade the parts that are actually upgraded.”

Phonebloks

On paper (or whatever type of screen you’re reading this on), modularity sounds a great idea. The same kind of customization enjoyed by people who build their own PCs could, if introduced to the phone world, make the indispensable devices we carry around every day even more indispensable.

At least, that was the theory. Unfortunately, despite promising efforts from big names that include LG, Motorola, and the mighty Google, modular phones just haven’t taken off as hoped. So what went wrong?

Searching for an audience

“I think this is kind of how technology works, right?” Marton Barcza, a technology pundit who makes videos on YouTube under the name TechAltar, told Digital Trends, concerning the sudden rise of modular phone concepts a half-decade ago. “There’s this idea that’s vaguely out there, but until you see somebody creating a really cool concept for it or bringing to market something that looks like an actual product, it’s [just of many cool concepts.] Then as soon as the first thing drops, and it gets people excited, a lot of companies suddenly [jump on board].”

Regardless of which company inspired which of its rivals, Barcza’s words sum up the short life of the modular phone as a mainstream direction for future smartphones. In the 2010s, several companies set about creating their own versions of modular phones. Some were smaller initiatives like Phonebloks, the Fairphone, and the PuzzlePhone, which promised modular concepts primarily built around sustainability and reducing e-waste. Others, like those created by the giants mentioned above, were focused more on customization, allowing customers to switch out modules to tweak handsets to their liking.

“When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing.”

“The USP (unique selling point) highly depends on your point of view,” Stephan Hankammer, professor for sustainability management and entrepreneurship at Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Bonn, Germany, told Digital Trends. “While Phonebloks … had a 100% environmental sustainability USP, Google Ara’s USP was focused and communicated around functional and aesthetic consumer needs, and the tremendous possibilities for customization and personalization.”

However, none of these selling points seemingly became a mainstream “must-have” reason for buying the phone. As the success of Apple’s “you can have any color so long as it’s black” approach has long since proven, most customers don’t appear to want infinite customization for their devices. They seek technology that works straight out of the box with a high degree of standardization. Some people love to build their own PCs, but these remain an overall niche. The iMac model of desktop computers, one that is nigh-on impossible for your average user to even open up and explore, is by far the norm. Why would a mass audience want their smartphones to be any different?

Yezz Project Ara 17
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

“When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions [of their phone],” Rafa Camargo, project lead on Google’s Ara initiative, told CNET in 2016. “They expect them all to be there, to always work, and to be consistent.” (Google ultimately canceled its Ara project that year with minimal fanfare.)

A lot of the promise and success of modular phones also depends on exactly which components are upgradable. A new camera lens or battery module is neat. But these are already available in the form of smartphone peripherals such as lens attachments and battery cases. The really meaningful upgrades, such as smartphone processors, have not been part of previous modular phone options. This, in turn, negates a large part of the promise of expandability and future-proofing.

Right to repair

It’s also worth noting that, while repairability and the ability to add minor upgrade modules sounds good to customers, it probably sounds very bad to many phone makers. Tech titans like the freshly minted $2 trillion Apple do plenty of good work when it comes to sustainability. But, particularly as the smartphone industry matures, they rely on existing customers upgrading their phones every few years to keep business booming.

“Modularity has proven to save resources and emissions, as well as improving repairability and recyclability and encouraging longevity.”

When Apple created a heavily discounted $29 battery replacement program in 2019, in response to the “batterygate” slowdown incident, Apple replaced as many as 11 million iPhone batteries during a period it would reportedly normally replace one or two million. Tim Cook cited the program as one of the reasons for slashing Apple earning estimates in Q1 2019. Now imagine if every new hardware feature was available either as a new iPhone handset or a stand-alone module you could clip into existing handsets. Apple might sell hundreds of millions of, say, a new lidar scanner you can add to your present iPhone, but it’s going to take an ax to Apple’s handset business. With no compelling reason for market-leading companies such as Apple and Samsung to sell users on modularity, it therefore remains a niche idea.

Fairphone 2
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Which, perhaps, helps explain where the concept is currently succeeding. Smaller startups such as ethical Android maker Fairphone are marketing the reduction of electronic waste as their major selling point to a small, but loyal, number of customers. Even this model is not without its challenges, though.

“Modularity has proven to save resources and emissions, as well as improving repairability and recyclability and encouraging longevity,” Ioiana Luncheon, a spokesperson for Fairphone, told Digital Trends. “Our life cycle assessment for Fairphone 3 found that using it or other mobile devices for five to seven years – one of Fairphone’s key ambitions – could reduce the phone’s CO2 footprint by 28% to 42%. However, many industry-wide barriers to smartphone longevity remain, including continued software support and ensuring long-term availability of spare parts.”

Will modular handsets eventually have their day in the sun? That remains to be seen. Certainly, some of the repairability aspects could find their way into handsets through initiatives like the “right to repair” drive.

But as for hot-swappable components that let you customize your phone on a daily basis, depending on your requirements? As far as mass audiences are concerned, that might be one concept too beautiful to ever be allowed to live.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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