About a decade ago, a new wave of modular cell phones washed all over the mobile phone industry. One new project after another was announced and the gospel of the benefits of modularity was preached to the world.
Modular smartphones are still here today, but they have not lived up to the hype that heralded their arrival. Allow me explain the concept of modular cell phones to you, walk you through their history, and explore the present and the future together.
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What is a modular cell phone?
A modular smartphone is like a set of building blocks for your phone. Instead of having a single, unchangeable device, you can customize it by adding or upgrading specific parts, just like snapping together Lego pieces. For example, you can swap out the camera, add extra battery power, or change the speakers to suit your needs. It’s a bit like having a phone that can adapt and grow with you, making it more versatile and environmentally friendly because you can keep using and upgrading it instead of buying a whole new phone.
Advantages of Modular Cell Phones
Modular phones offer several advantages over traditional smartphones. They can be customized and upgraded without needing to buy a new phone, reducing electronic waste. They also offer greater flexibility for users, allowing them to add or remove features as needed.
The First Modular Cell Phone
The Modu Phone was the first modular smartphone and was released in 2008. Components that could be swapped out include GPS, camera, MP3 player, and keyboards. Things didn’t quite work out and in February 2011, the company shut down operations after being unable to recover from heavy debts. In May 2011, Google paid $4.9 million for the patents of Modu.
Other Early Modular Cell Phones
In 2013, a new modular smartphone initiative was announced, taking on the form of a Voltron-like concept. Called PhoneBloks, the idea was to have detachable blocks that are connected to a base. Instead of allowing the user to swap out parts, this modular cell phone concent allowed users to build the phone of their dreams by picking the exact specifications they wanted.
PhoneBloks drew a lot of attention around the world. Sadly, like most early modular phones, it never got to the market. It died at the conceptual stage.
In 2013, Motorola (which was then owned by Google) announced a modular phone project called Project Ara. Users would be able to swap out modules like processors, displays, batteries, and cameras, among others. Again, it never amounted to anything and it got shut down in 2016.
Fairphone is an European modular cell phone company. The first Fairphone modular smartphone was released in 2015 and it was the Fairphone 2 (Fairphone 1 was not modular). Fairphone 2 was designed with modules that could be easily replaced by the user.
Fairphone has been the most successful modular cell phone company till date with modular cell phones spanning four generations. The Fairphone 5 was announced in August 2023 and went on sale the following month.
In 2016, LG dabbled into modular smartphones with the release of the G5 premium flagship phone. The LG G5 allowed users to swap out the bottom bezel to add only two new modules – a camera grip, and a high-fidelity audio module with DAC. The modular functionality was quite limited. The phone didn’t do well in the market either, and that was the end of experimenting with phone modularity for LG.
Moto Z3 and Moto Mods
In 2016, Motorola released the Moto Z modular smartphone with the hot-swappable MotoMods system, which allows users to add modules such as a 5G modem or a projector via magnetic connectors. The Moto Z series became Mororla’s playground for modularity and subsequent models were released, up to Moto Z4. The Z4, released in 208, was the last of Motorola’s modular smartphones, as the phones did not quite hit a home run in the market and the MotoMods project got shut down.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the story of modular cell phones is a mass graveyard of projects. Apart from Fairphone which has sustained production and operations till date, pretty much everyone else has given up on modular cell phones. At least for now.
Looking at the Numbers
Fairphone, the last modular cell phone company standing, sold only 120,000 devices in 2022 . The company is doing a commendable job, considering that they are standing where others have failed, but that number is a drop in the ocean of the global smartphone market. By way of comparison, Apple alone sold over 80 million phones in 2022 in the US.
Not a lot of people appear to care about phone modularity. At least, not yet.
Future of Modular Phones
Modular smartphones have come a long way since the release of the first modular cell phone about a decade ago. I would like to say that the future of modular phones is exciting, but that would not be exactly true. It doesn’t look or feel exciting right now. Everyone but Fairphone have exited the stage. What that means is that something is still missing because the market is not rewarding modular phone makers.
We know the benefits of modularity. The most significant advantage of modular cell phones is their potential for customization. Users can swap out modules to upgrade their phone’s camera, battery, or other features, without having to buy a whole new phone. As technology advances, we can expect to see more advanced and specialized modules become available, allowing users to tailor their phones to their specific needs and preferences.
Another area of potential improvement for modular phones is their durability. Many modular phones are designed with sustainability in mind, using materials that are environmentally friendly and easy to repair. As more consumers become concerned about the impact of their electronics on the environment, we can expect to see more demand for modular phones that are built to last.
Finally, modular phones have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about smartphone design. By allowing users to mix and match modules, manufacturers can experiment with new form factors and features without having to commit to a single design. This could lead to more innovative and unique phone designs that better meet the needs of users.
All of these are great on concept. Implementation is where the challenge is. When modular cell phones begin to be implemented in a way that excites mobile phone users, that excitement will happen and more people will jump on the train.
Europe’s sustainable Fairphone launches in the US (source).