Anyone who thinks modular smartphones are a cool concept was dispirited last week when Google postponed tests of its Project Ara until next year. But developing such devices is particularly challenging, because of issues with size, performance and price.
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Here are the top seven reasons why it's so difficult to develop smartphones that let users swap out the processor, camera and storage options:
The biggest technical challenge to building a modular smartphone is the underlying architecture, the structural frame and data backbone of the device, which makes it possible for all the modules to communicate with each other. It has to be so efficient that the overall performance doesn't take a hit and still be cheap and frugal with power consumption.
Last week, the Project Ara team posted and then retracted a Twitter message that a prototype had failed a drop test. But it's clear that keeping the modules in place is a challenge. In the message that wasn't retracted, Project Ara said it's developing a new and better solution. It also remains to be seen how the modules and connectors will be able to handle the wear-and-tear of long-term daily use.
While modular design gives users more flexibility it also comes with several drawbacks. Smartphones have become more svelte thanks to tighter integration between components, so the addition of chassis that needs to be quite sturdy adds to the overall size and weight. Vendors have to find the best possible balance between durability and size, which won't be easy.
However, the size likely won't be a deal breaker. Recent flagship smartphones from the likes of LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility and HTC aren't very light or small for their respective screen sizes and they still leave little to be desired.
The communication between the modules uses more power than in a traditional smartphone. What the eventual power tax will be remains to be seen. It's one of the things Google's Project Ara team is working to improve, it said last week.
The testing part of the development process is more complicated and time-consuming for modular phones. Instead of having to ensure that one hardware configuration works, vendors have to make sure that all permutations work equally well.
A more complicated development process and less product integration will have an effect on pricing, as well. The Project Ara FAQ states that it’s much too early to tell what phones will cost, but the bill-of-materials cost of a basic, entry-level Ara device is in the $50 to $100 range. The smartphone market has become very price competitive, so if modular smartphones are to succeed, the extra cost for manufacturing them has to be as small as possible.
Do consumers want one?
Spending money on developing modular smartphones is at the end of the day very brave since there are no guarantees they will succeed technically or commercially. There will always be tech enthusiasts who will buy them. But those customers aren't enough to make them financially viable in the long term, and convincing the large group of consumers who simply want a smartphone that just works will be very challenging.