Tossing the old smartphone and buying a new one every couple of years has become a wasteful but inescapable ritual for many. Nearly two thirds of U.S. adults own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center, and we dispose of about 130 million of them each year. One proposed solution would be modular smartphones that allow owners to replace broken parts, upgrade to better components—or even customize their devices based on their preference for, say, a better camera or more digital storage space.
The idea surfaced in 2013 when Dave Hakkens, a student at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, uploaded a YouTube video describing his “Phonebloks” concept. Google took notice and partnered with Hakkens to develop a modular smartphone—provisionally called Project Ara—using its Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team that came with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Since then major smartphone manufacturers as well as start-ups have been working to bring modular devices to the market.
But analysts say modular smartphones face a tough challenge in winning over mainstream consumers accustomed to slick, all-in-one Apple and Android devices. There is also the risk that environment-friendly goals will fall behind business considerations if consumers turn out to prefer handsets that are only minimally modular. The first attempts by major manufacturers such as LG Electronics and Motorola Mobility—now owned by China’s Lenovo, although the ATAP team is still at Google—have generally focused on minor accessory modules such as better cameras or upgraded speakers. The main smartphone hardware could still become obsolete within a few years.
Google’s Project Ara also seems to have moved away from the original, fully modular Phonebloks idea. During the May 2016 Google I/O conference, Google announced that the first version of its modular smartphone would have a base frame containing its central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), antennas, sensors, battery and display—a setup less ambitious and flexible than what Hakkens once envisioned. Still, the current “developer” version of Google’s modular smartphone advertises user choice in a design that resembles colorful blocks joined together. The developer phone has six slots that fit any given module and hold it in place with a magnetic grip. Rafa Camargo, engineering project lead for Project Ara, says the choice to make the core phone technologies unchangeable was a trade-off enabling a focus on modules “that innovate beyond the functionality you get on your smartphone today.”
“Nowadays most people do not upgrade their phone to get the next processor. They do not even know what that is,” Camargo says. “But they do it to get the next best camera or fingerprint sensor or better speaker—all in one device.”
Google’s proposed changes came as a surprise for Stephan Hankammer, research associate with the Technology and Innovation Management Group at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. He and his colleagues used Google’s Project Ara as a case study in how the idea of “mass customization” in modular smartphones could help reduce electronic waste. Their paper on the subject will appear in the journal Procedia CIRP this summer. Despite the disappointment about Google reducing Project Ara’s vision, Hankammer says it might be a necessary step to overcome certain engineering and business challenges—such as ensuring all the core phone functions work together seamlessly—in order to get a modular smartphone to market by 2017.
Start-ups have likewise taken an interest in increasing smartphone modularity. Dutch start-up Fairphone’s latest device features modularity more in keeping with the Phonebloks concept. Since July 2015 the company has sold more than 40,000 of its Fairphone 2 smartphones, which resemble an ordinary phone from the outside but have easily removable modules with components—such as screens, batteries, cameras, speakers and microphones—to enable easy repair, says Daria Koreniushkina, Fairphone’s public engagement manager. The modular design comes with some trade-offs, however. Although the phone is not sold in the U.S. it would cost about $500, depending on the currency exchange rate and VAT, roughly the same as a new iPhone without a wireless carrier subsidy. But to accommodate more flexibility in its design the Fairphone 2’s thickness is about 11 millimeters from the back of the case to the top of the screen. Apple’s iPhone 6 models are only about seven millimeters thick.
Circular Devices, a Finnish start-up, aims to begin regular production of its PuzzlePhone device by 2017. Its current PuzzlePhone design has three modules: a top “brain” with the critical computing and memory functions and camera; a central “spine” that includes the screen and mainframe; and a bottom “heart” with the battery and some secondary features chosen by users. “We have conducted extensive user research to conclude that the three-module approach is the one that makes most sense for sustainability and ease of use and opportunities for third parties [developing those modules],” says Alejandro Santacreu, CEO of Circular Devices.
Until someone actually puts a successful modular smartphone on the market, analysts will remain skeptical of the technology’s mainstream appeal. One of the biggest questions is whether customers will want to trade their current devices for bulkier modular smartphones. Such devices may appeal to a smaller group of customers who have specialized needs for their workplaces or to early tech adopters who like the customizability idea, says William Stofega, program director of Mobile Device Technology and Trends at analyst firm IDC.
In addition to the concerns about thickness, it is unclear whether modular smartphones could become affordable for specialized markets without the mass market sales to drive down production costs, says Tuong Nguyen, a smartphone expert for analyst firm Gartner, Inc. “The idea of modular smartphones has been around for awhile, but hasn’t taken off,” he says. “Since the smartphone market is slowing, this is one option to pursue, but it’s far from a panacea for the industry.”
Even if modular smartphones can compete with iPhones and Android handsets, the ability to reduce e-waste depends on smartphone owners changing old habits, says James Suckling, a research fellow in the Center for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey in England. Modular smartphones could encourage people to think more about reselling or reusing their electronics, but if consumers buy an excessive number of extra modules to swap in and out of their sets they might actually worsen the problem, he says.