Can Motorola Revolutionize the Smartphone?
Motorola is exploring the development of modular, customizable phones.
Here's a crazy idea.
What if smartphones were fully customizable? Rather than depend on the whims and bottom lines of a manufacturer, consumers were able to pick and choose which features their device would have. Heavy users with long commutes could have bigger batteries. Shutterbugs could choose a bigger camera. And every part of the phone would be modular: The screen, the processor, the storage, the GPS, the speaker, basically everything can be hooked up separately and swapped out if one of them should malfunction. After all, we don't replace our entire car when we get a flat tire, right?
Well, this crazy idea morphed into Phonebloks, a pipe dream concept by Dave Hakkens wherein users can create their own phones with a series of Lego-like parts. The idea was laid out in a video which debuted in September and went on to garner over 17 million views. Folks were clearly intrigued and soon clamored for the device.
However, it was just an idea. Hakkens didn't have the funds or the means to develop such a device for the masses on his own. He needed the backing of a large manufacturer, preferably with a sizable user base, to get the ball rolling and see if a modular phone would be feasible.
Fortunately, we may soon see a Phonebloks device on the market thanks to Motorola (NASDAQ:GOOG).
The Google arm has just announced Project Ara, a modular phone concept with a free, open hardware platform much in the same vein as Hakkens' Phonebloks idea. In Motorola's words, "We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines."
Or put simply: Take the idea that millions of tech users were excited by and bring it to fruition.
Motorola said it will be releasing a Project Ara developer's kit "sometime this winter," which is a very promising start. But we're still too early into the concept to see if it's at all viable for consumers -- and the manufacturer -- no matter how enthusiastic the response has been so far.
Because there are pretty big obstacles along the way.
While a modular design may sound good on paper, the inner workings of a smartphone are based on critical parts, placement, and design all finely tuned to work together. Things like the processor and RAM are combined onto one CPU chip so that performance is maximized in such a small place. Reconfiguring unoptimized, swappable parts -- possibly made by different third-party manufacturers -- could lead to a dip in speed and reliability. And given the number of possible combinations between modules and placement, it would be difficult to test and refine every single "phone" that a consumer might configure.
Then there's the cost, both to the consumer and manufacturer. Based on the existing concept, a phone "kit" made up of modular parts will likely cost more to produce and purchase than a single, fully assembled, mass-produced device. Sure, an 8-megapixel camera is relatively cheap when it's inside a smartphone, but how much more will it be when it's a separate and fully contained module that can be cleanly and efficiently plugged in and out?
Manufacturers are also reticent to forge headlong into a project unless they are 100% sure they won't take a bath and be left with a warehouse filled with unsold devices. So how enthusiastic would they be when they're looking at the prospect of a mountain of unsold CPUs because a faster one came out a few months later?
Another nasty disincentive is a buzz term popularized in the iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) age: planned obsolescence. Naturally, the companies that make our phones want us to keep buying new phones from them, which is why the previous year's iPhone looks mighty archaic when compared to the one released in the current year. If customers were able to update their phone on the fly by only upgrading certain parts for a cheaper cost than a brand-new phone, that could mean far less profit for the manufacturer.
Speaking of Apple, you can pretty much guarantee that one of the biggest names in the tech world will not be part of Project Ara, or any other modular concept for that matter. Apple makes the iPhone, other manufacturers make Android, Windows (NASDAQ:MSFT), and BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) devices, and never the twain shall meet. While many third parties could theoretically jump aboard the modular bandwagon, Apple users, for better or worse, will be left with a locked-down, pre-assembled device as their only option. That's a huge demographic that will never be tapped with this phone.
Then there are the carriers to think about. AT&T (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S), and (to a much, much greater extent) Verizon (NYSE:VZ) want us to keep re-upping contracts with the purchase of a new phone every two years or so. (Or better yet, pay the early termination fee before the contract is up because a newer, better phone was just released.) And just to give us the little push toward the upgrade, devices sometimes less than a year old fall off the upgrade cycle and miss out on the software updates that would keep them running as fast and smooth as the newer models. Putting the power of the upgrade into the hands of the consumer is not at the top of their to-do list, so carrier support could very well be difficult to come by.
And finally, as painful as it is to face, we may be overestimating the demand of a modular phone. Sure, 17 million views in less than two months is nothing to sneeze at, and tech heads are frothing at the idea of building their own phone like the PC towers they built in the '90s. But how many average users are really going to fine tune a device they would normally take 30 seconds to consider before purchasing? Many consumers want a phone that "just works," a concept that has buoyed Apple sales into the billions. Even if customizing a phone to suit their needs would make them a happier user overall, many would prefer just pointing to one of the dozen middling, serviceable devices available for free on their current carrier and use it for texts and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) posts.
Motorola's Project Ara is an exciting and esteemable concept, one that millions will doggedly monitor as it (hopefully) progresses. But as drool-worthy a project as it is, its realization might just not be in the stars.
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