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The challenges in building a modular smartphone

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In 2013, Google’s Project Ara—a revolutionary smartphone concept—was born. The project of creating a modular device  where its parts or pieces can be switched or replaced slowly progressed.

However, in 2015, in an effort to “streamline the company’s hardware efforts,” the technology giant had finally announced its suspension.

What went wrong?

Form, architecture and durability are only some of the reasons why Google has yet to try again and look for possibilities to re-invent the technology.

Before diving in to its future prospects, let’s take a step back and trace its history.

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What is Project Ara?

Project Ara was one of Google’s projects under its ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects) division. It aimed to come up with a modular-type of smartphone. Modularity simply means that parts of the phone—its CPU, GPS, battery, sensors, external memory, etc.—are to be placed in the phone’s main frame or chassis like “puzzle pieces.”

The idea was so revolutionary because it meant being able to “customize” your device according to your desired specifications.

The concept once seemed to be so distant and can only be realized in science fiction. But in this age, it was made possible by Google and Motorola as well.

The reasons why modular smartphones are difficult to develop

While the attempt to develop modular phones was no small feat for Google, it was still faced with challenges, especially in its technical aspects.

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  • Form and Size. The thin-and-slim structure has become the structural style for most smartphones in recent years. This means that the need for a frame or chassis in such a modular phone might be a disadvantage.
  • Durability. The modular parts and connectors need to survive its long-term everyday use. Since there are mechanical parts involved, it’s quite prone to damage and it might not survive long-term wear and tear.
  • Architecture. All modular “lego” pieces or structural parts of the modular phone—along with all its important data—should be able to communicate efficiently with one another. It’s easy when everything’s integrated, but customized parts can make it difficult.
  • Testing. Modular phones would involve testing each “puzzle” piece of the whole structure. This would mean that all permutations of the hardware configuration of the device must work together before it can be marketed to the target consumers.
  • Likability. The challenging technicalities must have been one reason behind the drawbacks of the modular phones. Moreover, the uncertainties it brings being a new concept to many must have also been a factor that these phones failed initially.
  • Price. Given that the current smartphone market is competitive, pricing on modular phones would have to adjust and must be as affordable as possible.
  • Battery Life. The battery life of this modular phone would probably take more than the normal power consumption of a usual smartphone given its structure.

Prospects: Modular Phones 2.0?

Will there be a reincarnation of the development of modular smartphones? No one knows. But Google has expressed its hopes that “all [its] hard work would not go to waste” because they had passed it over to other tech companies.

In case you missed it, here are our 3 reasons why we want the modular smartphone concept revived.

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