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Never buy a phone again

One thing that seems to have fired up people's imagination and is featuring high on the wishlist is a modular phone. How about having a modular phone just like modular furniture, asks Rajiv Makhni.

brunch Updated: Nov 22, 2014 15:12 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times

Ask anyone about a dream feature on their future phone and the usual suspects will crop up. A phone that bends and folds, a phone that can change colour at the press of a button and the old favourite – a phone with a battery life of more than a week. But of late, the one thing that seems to have fired up people’s imagination and is featuring high on the wishlist is a modular phone.

It could save the world and you
At its most basic, a modular phone is a brilliant idea. Think of a basic frame for a phone and every other single thing that makes up a phone is an add-on module. Thus, you add a screen of your choice, a RAM module, a processor you prefer, a battery (or maybe two batteries if you are a power user), a basic camera or a top-of-the-line camera module if you are a photography enthusiast.

What you put together is totally customised by you. Every time a new feature or a new technology comes up that you really want, just buy the specific module and replace it on your phone. And if something goes wrong with your phone, swap in a replacement module of just the defective part.

Electronic waste is dramatically reduced, the number of discarded phones comes down drastically and the amount of money wasted on lusting after the next big thing is also eliminated. That dream-like device may just be about to become a reality.

A phone worth keeping: Phonebloks is a concept that could add and subtract blocklike modules that could be put together Lego-brick-style

It all started off with a video about a product called Phonebloks, with the tagline ‘a phone worth keeping’. The video showcased a product that could add and subtract block-like modules that could be put together Lego-brick-style. Whatever was new, cutting edge and on top of your ‘I want it now’ list could be ‘blocked in’ on to the phone in an instant.

The idea went instantly viral worldwide. But Phonebloks had a few serious problems. It was more fantasy than reality, there weren’t any real working prototypes and the company behind it was clear that they weren’t going to make it. They just wanted to be “thought generators” and assist anyone who wanted to take this up.

Project ara
Google, through its recently acquired company Motorola, took the idea of Phonebloks forward with a special division that came up with a phone idea called Project Ara. Even when Motorola was sold to Lenovo, they didn’t sell this division but retained it.

Project ara: Google wil release three different sized phone endoskeletons called Endos, which will be priced really low.

Today, the first Project Ara phone is a working prototype and may well see a commercial release in 2015. Project Ara is even more ambitious than Phonebloks.

Google will release three different-sized (a mini, a medium and a very large sized one) phone endoskeletons called, well – Endos. That’s the only thing that Google will make and they will price these Endos really low – something like Rs 2,500.

They will then partner with and encourage other companies to come up with basic to very high-end modules that will fit onto these Endos. Companies wanting to make modules won’t have to pay any license fee nor any commission to Google. Anyone with a great idea and a vision for a module can make them with some governing principles on compatibility and module size.

Each module will fit onto the endo with a semi-permanent electromagnet and you can keep adding and subtracting to your heart’s content. Want to move from a HD to a 4K screen, want an optical lens for the camera, need a glucometer or a heart rate sensor, want a fingerprint scanner, more RAM or even a micro printer? Just slide in the module! Thus, you can build yourself a really basic phone or the world’s most high-end phone. It’s your call!

The Modu that wasn’t
A phone called Modu tried this modular approach a few years back. It was the world’s smallest fully functional phone. You could use it as a normal phone, or if you really wanted more features, just slid it into specially built jackets.

Just layer it: Lenovo’s Vibe X2 is a phone that works on the principle of layers. You can add things but can’t replace them.

Bigger screen, better camera or even a photo frame – there was a Modu jacket for it. Unfortunate pricing (very high) plus very limited jacket options made sure the Modu died a premature death.

Lenovo layers it in
Lenovo has brought a first taste of a real semimodular phone with Vibe X2. Instead of blocks, this one works on the principle of layers. You can add a battery (to get three days of battery life) or a JBL sound system plus speakerphone layer (it even has add-on mics for a full conference call) and many more layers are expected. The Vibe X2 is a great phone that can add new things – but not replace them.

A humbler approach
Then, there is the Project Ara rival called Vsenn that is also ready for commercial release soon. This is a modular phone with slightly more humble aspirations as it will only have three swappable components – its camera, battery and processor/RAM.

Thus it seems that the journey towards a real modular phone that can be swapped and upgraded and custom-built just for you is about to happen. And if a modular phone becomes reality, future generations will look back and laugh at the time when we used to buy a whole new phone just because we wanted one new feature.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, November 23
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First Published: Nov 20, 2014 17:56 IST