Most people have more than one smartphone due to new smartphones being introduced to the market yearly or even twice a year. To address this challenge some smartphone manufacturers designed deals that allow consumers to return their devices for a massive discount. This is done partly to clear their conscience as they may be aware that the speed at which they are churning devices is unnecessary at least for consumers. What’s interesting is that there’s a known industry solution that is lurking and waiting for one bold smartphone maker to take a stand.
One Dutch designer, Dave Hakkens, showed us that it’s possible to solve this challenge. For his graduation project he once showcased the phonebloks concept. It’s a concept for modular mobile phones that would allow consumers to just change the damaged or expired part. Modularized devices promised users the ability to swap out elements such as the camera, battery, and even the processor, to either upgrade the units or replace them if they became damaged or worn out.
Google also tried the same concept with Project Ara. It was a modular smartphone project under development by Google. The project was originally headed by the Advanced Technology and Projects team within Motorola Mobility while it was a Google subsidiary. Google retained the ATAP group when selling Motorola to Lenovo, and it was placed under the stewardship of the Android development staff; Ara was later split off as an independent operation Google stated that Project Ara was being designed to be utilized by “6 billion people.
Under its original design, Project Ara was intended to consist of hardware modules providing common smartphone parts, such as processors, displays, batteries, and cameras, as well as modules providing more specialized components, and “frames” that these modules were to be attached to. This design would allow a device to be upgraded over time with new capabilities and upgraded without requiring the purchase of an entire new device, providing a longer lifecycle for the device and potentially reducing electronic waste. However, by 2016, the concept had been revised, resulting in a base phone with non-upgradable core components, and modules providing supplemental features.
Google planned to launch a new developer version of Ara in the fourth quarter of 2016, with a target bill of materials cost of $50 for a basic phone, leading into a planned consumer launch in 2017. However, on September 2, 2016, Reuters reported that two non-disclosed sources leaked that Alphabet’s manufacture of frames had been cancelled, with possible future licensing to third parties. Later that day, Google confirmed that Project Ara had been shelved.
Research conducted at universities in Germany by Stephan Hankammer and colleagues, points to the ability of modularized designs to extend product life, which would be a big win for consumers and the planet. Although, in a massively modularized marketplace, consumers would need to be able to resist constantly upgrading their devices for any environmental gains to take hold.
Fairphone is the closest thing we have to modularized smartphones. The idea behind the Fairphone is that it allows the consumer to still access new technology without having to replace your entire device entirely. Parts are upgradable with ease leading to a consumer keeping the device for longer.
This is the way to go for device manufacturers. There’s a need to change the culture of producing smartphones annually with limited upgrades. Some in China are believed to be working on such mobile devices.
This move will require major smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung and Huawei to start considering a change in their core design culture and DNA.
Current conditions require a solution that moves away from forced obsolescence to devices that can last longer, upgradable and fixable by their own consumers.
This process however will not happen without commercial entities being forced to end their ways. Legislators need to consider laws that encourage device makers to make devices that are modularized. The first major smartphone to do this will win big time.
There’s a move towards minimalism and caring for the environment, a device that lasts longer may be what everyone is looking for currently and into the future.