The Key To Modular Smartphones

Cellphone startup Fairphone is now taking pre-orders for their modular smartphone, which is expected to start shipping in December of this year. Although I’m much more familiar with Google’s project Ara, this is the first modular concept to make it to market. It does lead me to a few questions though: is this actually a modular smartphone, and how widely will modular concepts be adopted?

Great in Theory, Questionable in Practice

Camera module concept from Project Ara
Camera module concept from Project Ara

What if I told you that your smartphone camera was user upgradeable? When the next great gigapixel sensor comes out, just pop out that module and pop in a new one. What if the same went for the processor, the screen, or the charging circuitry? Surely everyone wants the USB type-C fast charging that is available in the new Google Nexus Phones.

It sounds great, but the truth is that the majority of smartphone users don’t know what they have anyway. Orienting our modular design thinking to the high-end market is a miscalculation. The people who want the highest specs also want the thinnest, sexiest phones. Those are already slimmed down to the point of insanity — iPhone screws now have imperceptibly different lengths to account for this thinning of design. These tolerances make modularity nearly impossible.


iFixit shows how to replace all of the Nexus 5 "modules"
iFixit shows how to replace all of the Nexus 5 “modules”

You could say that I already have a modular phone. I have a Nexus 5 and I love it so much I decided not to upgrade to the Nexus 5X that was recently released. Instead I purchased a replacement screen (I had a small chip in one corner for 11 months), battery, and back plate. From the outside this makes it a brand new phone and restored my time between recharges. All of the pieces have connectors that allow them to be easily replaced.

What we’re really talking about with modular smartphones are standards that can be used from component to component across all phones. This involves settling on a physical form-factor, and making sure the software can handle each component that is developed. That increases code complexity and makes it harder to squash bugs. This is already an issue with single-manufacturer phones and is unlikely to get better when bringing in modules from different companies.

Currently, Google is working on their own modular standard which includes active data handling in the framework itself. The Fairphone design uses the frame as a substrate with conductors between each slot that don’t actively participate in the way the phone operates.

There is a Customer

midi-tower-pc-case-408x544Thinking back to the personal computer revolution, it’s easy to imagine a similar path for smartphones. We eventually had standards for motherboard mounting systems so that cases could be made to match multiple manufacturers. The same went for expansion cards which adopted ISA and later PCI. The list continues with processor sockets, memory sockets, even the power connectors for everything inside of that beige box.

That last part is of course the main problem. Who wants a beige box for their smartphone? These devices are a status symbol and a fashion statement. The established smartphone market is far too fickle for wide adoption of a modular standard that would make the phones look uniform, boxy, etc. I’m not saying this is impossible to get around, but before you can get around that issue you need to establish modularity as a proven smartphone technology. I think the early adopters of modular smartphones are going to be in the developing world.

Much of the population of the developing world doesn’t have computers, and they’re going to skip them in favor of a smartphone. The original PC revolution put up with beige boxes because they were cheap to get into, and could potentially be upgraded. I think the same will happen with modular smartphones. If you can drop 10% of the cost by having a 640×480 camera module instead of a 4k video sensor you’re making great progress. Especially so if you can later upgrade that camera. The same can be said for the pitiful 8GB of flash that many low-end phones still offer. What these phones lack in visual appeal will be made up for by aftermarket phone cases to protect the investment.

When I was growing up I was the “computer guy” that people knew and looked to for help with their machines. Time and again I’ve ordered memory upgrades for aging machines (all while encouraging the owners to try out Linux and get more out of their aging horsepower). I expect the same phenomenon to develop in the communities of people adopting modular smartphones as their first Internet technology.

Why Would Manufacturers Embrace This?

This is a question I cannot answer. Why would smartphone manufacturers go willingly toward modular design? As far as I can tell there are only disincentives here. It’s not surprising that Fairphone is a startup and not already in the market. Google — who is behind Project Ara — is not a hardware manufacturer. They are an advertising and content delivery company that uses third-parties like LG and Huawei to manufacture their gear.

For modular design to work you need to allow anyone to build modules. This is why I see my current Nexus 5 as having little to differentiate it from how Fairphone works. Google produces components for the Nexus 5, Fairphone produces modules for their handset. Fairphone paid for research and development of the standard and you can bet they’re not going to give it away for free. If they do allow other manufacturers to make modules there will surely be a licensing fee and this has the potential to drive up the cost and erode the ability for this phone to capture the developing world’s hard-earned cash.

There are some ways around this. Sony and Microsoft have long sold their gaming consoles at losses, only to make up for it with licensing fees for game publishers. Amazon sells their new Kindle Fire Tablet for $50 but you have to pay an additional $13 if you don’t want to see advertising on the home screen. What if one of the hardware modules is the Google Play store, another the Apple Store, and yet a third the Amazon Store? Would these retailers pay a premium to have exclusive access to each phone?

It’s wonderful to see what is going on with these concepts. But for now I see them as phones that are much easier to repair, and may have the capacity to be upgraded. They’re not modular, but with continued decreases in the size and cost of electronic components it’s conceivable that there will be a modular-phone movement — as long as a clear design standard that works like a champ finds wide adoption among manufacturers.

48 thoughts on “The Key To Modular Smartphones

    1. Motorola are doing just that. See the Moto X Play (Droid MAXX 2) and Moto X Force (Droid Turbo 2).

      They have approximately double the battery capacity of the iPhones (though they’re nowhere near as efficient)

      1. Can you still get smart phones with removable batteries? When I last purchased a new phone 93 months back) I could not find any model with a replaceable battery., The sales people told me that all the manufacturers moved to permanent batteries in their phones. I can see them doing this because it limits ones options to continue using a smart phone beyond the 1-2 year contract.

        Its obvious that smart phone manufacturers do NOT want their products to last beyond 2 years and a few months so they can more easily get the consumer base to adopt the ‘replace’ mentality over ‘repair’ when it comes to electronics. We know that most if not all modern electronic devices are designed, built and tested to stop working after a predefined amount of time or usage. Its called planned obsolescence and it sounds like some crazy conspiracy theory but its not only true but its been around fro a number of decades. The pitch used to get everyone on board with planned obsolescence was that it would increase sales by artificially shortening the life of any product. If you manufactured smart phones you’d know that the device need not work for more ten 2 maybe 3 years because the consumer has been conditioned to expect that they will have to replace their phone with each contract renewal.

        Its not just hand held electronics that embrace planned obsolescence but all of manufacturing save for a few distinguished hold outs that still believe in quality; making something worth owning.

        1. The salesman was lying, there are still plenty of manifacturers that make phones with accessible batteries.Entry and medium phones usually have the greatest repairability, top gamma either require expensive parts and tools, or has exotic parts which are hard to find or patented.

          1. It’s long past time for the USA to update the law requiring rechargeable batteries to be removable/replaceable by the end user/consumer. The problem is the law specifically mentions only Lead-Acid, Nickel-Cadmium and Nickel-Metal-Hydride. Since none of the various Lithium based battery chemistries are mentioned in the law, the manufacturers get a free pass to glue shut any device using those.

            Simply changing the law to say any type of rechargeable battery or electricity storage device (to cover things like graphene ultracapacitors) would fix it, and shove Apple’s glued shut phones right up their phony “green”…

        2. I had a Nokia semi-smart phone with a replaceable battery. The slightest knock would sproing it apart. After a few months it had to be held together with tape. I can’t see a modular phone being cheap, robust, or desirable.

          1. 3310. Or a 6630 that i recharge each few months, and the battery still got me through a week of forest camp (on and off, but in below 0 c temperatures) after a couple of years it spent lying in a dusty box. Htc tytn2 that still works, even though it had a statuette fall on it. Well, i should have limited my post to just 3310 and then listen to “not smartphone” whine. But really -confirmation bias – everyone values his own experience more than everyone else’s.

    2. seriously though, I don’t care if my phone is 2mm thinner than the competition. If anything, I like it to have a bit of bulk in my hand. What I would really like is a slightly thicker phone with better battery, and maybe even other upgraded specs.

    3. galaxy + 3x zerolemon battery. 0.6″ thick and I recharge 3 times every 2 weeks. I routinely use it for 4g tether, audio, gps tracking of run, bike, drive. I can log a 4 day camping trip. When it rains on those trips I can stream netflix HD, review journal papers, document my own work, read ebooks, remote desktop and write code. Battery life? Ha. I recharge it at 15% because under heavy use I might dry up in the next day. But its never happened.

      and I drop it far far less than a thin smart phone.

  1. > ” But for now I see them as phones that are much easier to repair, and may have the capacity to be upgraded. ”

    And at least in the materials I’ve seen, that is all Fairphone advertises, and it fits very well into the philosophy they sell. You seem to pull a lot of critique out of the fact that the ars article called it “modular” instead of “repair friendly”.

  2. They are needlessly limiting the potential of this by focusing on phones. They could make various shells that could accept these modules and make them far more valuable. Give me various form factors of Laptop shells, or Tablets, or TVs.. they could make a handheld game shell, or a Raspberry Pi-esque board. Replace the CPU component in your cellphone? Use the old one in something else.
    Also, let me swap out a flash component to easily switch between Android and Ubuntu.

    1. As the various hobby boards keep following a version of Moore’s Law, you’ll eventually get your wish. In theory you could do it now, just not as small as the current crop of devices. But how is that any different than the old beige boxes. Those were always bulkier and uglier than high end machines from name brand mfg, and if you wanted the same power, you were spending so much it was better to go name brand on the outside.

  3. Along with the PC example, while some things such as storage, graphics, and memory are upgradeable, some of your more tightly coupled parts are less upgradable that you would like. For instance, I actually don’t remember buying a new CPU where I didn’t have to also buy a new motherboard, and consequential, new memory, and sometimes a new graphics card (PCI->AGP->PCI-EX). That’s the real challenge with a modular phone, building components that are able to keep their compatibility for more than the lifespan of a typical phone.

    1. Good thing I read comments before posting one, I was thinking about posting something just like you did. Computers at least have some parts worth keeping, like good PSU and case. I never bought new phone and thought “if only I could keep some features of my old one” … they are all obsolete in two years and new one is much superior, and usually the same price if not cheaper.

    2. I’ve had very few PCs, including laptops, where I *have not* upgraded the CPU to a faster one that fit the same socket. IIRC all but my first two laptops got CPU upgrades. First was a Dell Pentium 75 with a dual scan LCD. The top chip for that model was only a P90 and not worth the effort, especially with the crappy screen. Next one was a Toshiba Tecra 800. Could have upped it to the fastest Mobile Pentium II module but people wanted absolutely insane prices on eBay for those chips.

      Current laptop is a 2.5Ghz Core2 Duo from 2008. I may consider having a look at the fastest it can accept. Socket P and M mobile Pentium CPUs tend to be very inexpensive. One must be careful to get the right chip as Intel produced 4 or 5 generations of 478/479 pin laptop CPUs that will mostly fit the same sockets but are not electrically compatible. Even more complicating is Intel often used the exact same core as P and M variants that differ only in the positions of some of the power and signal pins. Why? Who the feck knows!

  4. Every phone I’ve ever had has been a compromise. Memory, SD capable, screen resolution, camera, storage, battery life keyboard, locked vs unlocked and OS (so why again do most companies refuse to update the OS beyond at most 1 version? (Nexus excepted)
    I’d gladly sacrifice stupidly slim for more choice and extendable life.
    The trouble is I know that will never happen. Too many people make too much money selling the latest-greatest.

    1. The Epic 4G (slider version) on Sprint got two major Android version upgrades and some lesser updates. The Galaxy S4 started on (IIRC) 4.0 and has had upgrades to 4.1.x and is now on 5.0.1. (But of course the north america market got the 4.1 and 5.0.1 upgrades last!) The Photon Q got one, possibly 2 Android version upgrades. Last was 4.1.2 and Cyanogenmod has shoehorned 5.1.1 onto it.

      The worst offenders at not upgrading are the legions of tablet manufacturers that promise upgrades then never ever deliver. I’m looking at YOU, Nobis! Nobis tablets are very nice, aluminum housings, quite decent LCDs, fast CPUs, but they never release an Android upgrade and despite being one of the best selling mid-tier brands they get little attention from the hackers and modders. Still no root or ROMs for the NB7850S 7″ that Staples sold millions of.

  5. For me this whole thing is some reaction to the limits that have hit the smartphone market as well: megapixel wars, CPU wars, RAM wars etc have come to an end.

    I mean, my current phone is 2 generations old, has a huge screen whose pixels i cannot distinguish, huge ram and cpu resources, great camera, i can choose how much storage to add with a card, i can replace the battery which is never depleted after a day of hard use. I look at the current offer and it is only marginally better.

    Now, if i were to want something more it would be one of the nice 40MP cameras nokia has.

    But sincerely, i find the storage and replaceable battery to be the best things you should be able to change. If all phones could be designed to take in different sizes of battery that would also be great….but let’s face it, it would add trouble to the whole RF design.

    1. “These devices are a status symbol and a fashion statement.” That’s a bold statement. Many people I know only get new phones because they’re ‘free’. Now that most carriers are going to a payment plan for new phones, I’d bet money that many won’t upgrade automatically – they’ll figure out how to replace their batteries and fix their screens until the phone is truly ‘old’.

  6. Yes, phones keep getting sleeker and slimmer and sexier. They stay operationally fragile, though — I see broken, chipped, and scratched up ones all the time. I’m pretty careful with my own, but it inevitibly collects little dents and scratches. Add a case and that sleek design gets lost. My thought is that you make the modular phone’s chassis larger and more protective-case-like, so you don’t have to double-wrap all the components. You might even break even that way.

    1. Not endorsing this product, but it is a smartphone purpose built for a specific audience that subjects their equipment to “extreme” use (public safety – ie. police, fire departments). What’s slick about this is the 106 dB SPL (1 watt audio output). And it’s submersibility. However it’s not something the average consumer would purchase (or be able to for that matter, since you can’t buy these at your local Verizon store).

      Note, it is *NOT* built by their former cellular handset division (Motorola Mobility>Google>Lenovo)….Motorola Solutions is the core business founded almost a century ago for 2 way radios.

  7. One of the biggest issues (at least here in Europe) is getting the electromagnetic compatibility certifications for something that intentionally produces RF yet by its nature can be changed by the consumer. It’s all very well being able to plug in different modules, but you’d have to test every possible combination to ensure there’s no unexpected interference emitted as a result of a particular radio module and say display module being together. I’m sure they’ve come up with ways of addressing that though relating to what constitutes a ‘product’.

    1. Don’t they have DoC, Declaration of Compliance, in Europe? With the tech boom of the 80’s it became impossible for the FCC to test *everything* so they developed standards for manufacturers to test their stuff on their own, declare it compliant with FCC regulations then submit the tests to the FCC for approval.

      IIRC, things like expansion boards that go into a device with an already compliant enclosure don’t need to be tested, unless they send signals outside the box.

      It’s in the best interests of manufacturers to actually make sure their products are compliant, since an EMI/RFI noisy product will not be a popular product.

  8. Like I really want a lego phone that will smash into a million little pieces when I accidentally drop it. All I want is a phone with good reception, 1 week battery life, excellent camera, and a bright, daylight readable, easy to read screen. SD expansion, dual SIM and waterproof. And a kitchen sink.

  9. I’m up for a new contract right now with Verizon. I noticed that all of the carriers have separated the data plan and phone cost into separate payments. Now that I know that I’m not going to receive a free phone with this new contract, I am now interested in keeping my current phone running for as long as possible. It’s possible that shifting the responsibility of paying for a contract phone from the carrier to the consumer will create a market for easily repairable phones.

    Also, I’ve noticed that the improvements made in each new generation of phone seem to have become marginal. Five years ago, my mind was blown by how much phone technology progressed over the two years of my contract. Looking at the market now, I’ve found that though the latest phones may have 4k screens and faster processors, their screens doesn’t look much more crisp nor do they feel that much faster than my 2 year old LG G2. I’m not interested in upgrading to a new phone because I don’t feel like they offer me much more than what I already have.

    1. SamSprint recently released a new phone, the Galaxy Grand Prime. the only thing “grand” about it is it’s physically a bit larger than the Galaxy S4, yet it has a lower resolution LCD (rather than the S4’s 1080p LED), less RAM and internal storage than the S4, but still has a removable battery and SD slot. (SD stacked over the SIM instead of a separate slot.) Why do they call it the Grand Prime?

      What’s frigging crazy about it is the battery. It’s the exact same size and capacity as the S4 battery, the contacts are the same, it has the NFC antenna in its wrapper, yet Samsung made the key notches slightly different so the GP and S4 batteries won’t interchange.

  10. “making sure the software can handle each component that is developed” The design for that is simple. Give Android a driver plugin model then have every device equipped with a Flash chip that holds its driver.

    In other words, copy the design Texas Instruments used almost 40 years ago for their Home Computer. The computer’s OS didn’t have to be pre-programmed for any peripheral not included inside the main console. It just had “ports” where the Device Service Routines (DSR’s or as we call them now, “drivers”) ‘plug in’ and present their capabilities. To use a peripheral, a program only has to make a ‘call’ to a DSR routine and the console OS ‘arranges the meeting’ between program and DSR.

    That open and extremely flexible system is how so much 3rd party hardware and more modern technologies have been grafted onto the TI-99 computers. Nothing has to be done to the console OS, the new peripheral’s DSR just has to be written to ‘drop in’ to an unused ‘port’. Originally the DSRs were on masked ROMs or PROM chips but some 3rd party hardware has used EEPROMs that can be updated while the device is installed.

    Another very nice feature of such a system is physical removal of a piece of hardware 100% perfectly and cleanly removes the driver. It’s *IMPOSSIBLE* for a new device driver to damage the operating system because it does not make any direct alterations to the OS. If it doesn’t work you just shut down and remove the device and the system is back to exactly how it was before.

    With Windows and other systems most of us have had experiences where a bad driver install has seriously mucked up the OS, or where uninstalling a driver has left behind various bits and pieces that are difficult to track down and get rid of.

    The closest any other hardware platform came to Texas Instruments’ method was IBM’s MCA, but that required a special setup floppy for almost every MCA bus device to configure it. TI’s system didn’t need that.

  11. This article kinda misses the point and is slightly erroneous in that Fairphone has already been in the market. Fairphone isn’t making a modular phone for the sake of modularity, but for the sake of sustainability. And, this isn’t Fairphone’s first phone, but it’s second. In their first phone, they wanted to tackle the use of conflict minerals in phones and so sourced a number of critical materials (tantalum and tin, for example), via cooperatives in developing countries. They crowdfunded an initial batch of 5000 phones (I have one of them) and eventually sold about 60000.

    For their second phone they want to take it a step further; pushing the boundaries of fairness and sustainability.

    Thus Fairphone is a ground-breaking company that has some success behind it and so it deserves serious consideration. Understanding the ethos of the company and getting behind it tells us a lot about where hacker culture could be in the near future as we take steps to shift electronics and computing from increasing consumerism towards genuine accessibility for the people.

  12. I don’t think the PC tower comparison works well. Mobility puts restrictions on the design that constrict modularity. Laptops are somewhat upgradeable, but their form trumps everything else. I’m glad that my laptop has an actual socket and not a BGA mounted processor. But, being 5 years old, upgrading the processor and maxing out the RAM seems… trivial. The time and money spent doing so would be better spent on the latest-and-greatest technology. And, of course, the latest-and-greatest has changed form factors.

  13. Anyone ever look up the Panasonic Toughpad’s? There smartphone you can change the OS, you get 5″ screen, upgradeable memory via sd card, dropproof up to 10′ (and no not a typo, 10 feet), replaceable battery, which also lasts 22 hours running(not standby), and weather proof -20 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius or -20 F to 120 F. Dust proof water proof. Anybody looking this up yet? And on top of ALL OF THAT, unlocked preprogrammed to either windows or Android but like I said, user changeable OS to any of these: Linux, windows, ios, Android, and for all you hackers out there you’ll love the next OS,….. Arduino! Or any OS you choose.

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