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« A Tale of Two Smartphones: US vs Rest of World compared | Main | Celebrating Kate Moore, Iowa teen who is fastest at SMS texting »

June 15, 2009



Here's an idea that struck me a while back with regards to the quest for the "perfect smartphone". Why not have the cell phone evolve into a modular platform like the PC? I.e. people can choose from basic form factors and then decide what they need from their. Care about watching video content? Get a nice high resolution screen but at the cost of battery life. Don't care about photography? Get a lower resolution camera or even skip it altogether. Need to send email and text? Pick a dual T9/QWERTY form factor and so on.

Obviously, the concept is much easier to imagine than to execute it. I can already imagine the issues (lack of a unified modular hardware platform, different OSes, durability/build issues). But considering that there's already a limited form of "customization" already available with regards to face plates, covers, and protective shields, I'm curious about why this approach hasn't been talked about in more depth. Is there something I've overlooked in the brief list I mentioned that makes this idea a nonstarter? There many things that are unique to a mobile that doesn't apply to other mediums, sure, but I don't see what prevents the modularity of the PC from being replicated on the mobile side.


No, no, no, Tomi! I didn't write the post you referred to - that was one of our new writers, Justin Berkovi! Can you edit your post, please?

Steve Litchfield


@MM: The reason why you won't see that concept with mobiles for sometime yet is because mobile tech is more than just tech, there's also a heap of politics behind releasing and selling them that none of the incumbents want to let go of.

Nevertheless, mobiles are like autos in this respect, and us as analysts would do well to remmeber this when comparing and contrasting varrying models, cultures, and usage scenairos within mobile.

Tomi Ahonen

Hi MM, Steve and ARJ Wright

Thank you for the comments. I'll respond to each individually

MM - good point. Yes, there seems to be an opportunity for a modular phone "kit" that you could assemble from compatible parts, a bit like a Lego kit, and upgrade your phone in parts, and even potentially swap parts for a given need say for the weekend, or going out to a holiday trip.

I have occasionally bumped into this type of discussion. I haven't really thought it through as to why one doesn't exist today, but my gut feeling says it would be a very niche product, appealing to a very small subsegment of the total population.

There would be considerable challenges (but by no means insurmountable) ie if you open up a modern mid or high end mobile phone, you'll see the guts are incredibly tightly packed electronics. Every nook and cranny of space is utilized. If we now add "modular bays" to accommodate say different power CPUs, removable screens, alternate keyboards/pads, etc - then there is the "shelf" or connecting "housing" for that given component. Similar to the PCMCIA slot on the side of laptops, or say the battery on the phone today. The device would need to be built with several such modular "expansion bays".

These would add to size (need to be reasonably robust to allow swapping of parts by consumers) and would need their own micro-connectivity (tiny slots like the USB port or the memory card slot etc).

All this would add to size (and weight and cost). Not prohbitively, but noticeably. So your modular phone would automatically be more "clumsy" or have more size and weight, than the non-modular one.

Then we have the inter-relatedness of the parts. If you open up a desktop PC from 10 or 20 years ago, even though many of the modern parts have technically a slot or part where they could connect, the design has evolved so much and internal abilities - that the newer part won't fit the older device. On practical matters, take a modern USB device. It tends to be a USB 2.0 device. But if you have an old laptop or desktop, with USB 1.0 only, then your new USB device cannot connect to it.

This is typical of all IT development, due to Moore's Law. So the "platform" of the modular phone would need to be assumed to be of limited life span. It might well not be of appeal to many consumers to find that the platform can't support the newest high-def screen or camera; and then the whole kit needs to be replaced.

I do find the concept appealing personally. I've always loved modular technology (and did play with Lego sets as a kid ha-ha, must originate from there..) So if you find a partner to set it up, will be happy to be one of your guinea-pigs for the first devices ha-ha..

Steve - thanks. I fixed it. Sorry about that. Justin is now correctly credited. Thank you for spotting it.

ARJ - True, the politics also behind that modular idea. And yes, totally agree with you that the handset business has a lot of similarity with cars (not unlike the mobile industry ie operator/carrier business, having a lot of similarity with the airlines industry)

Thank you all for writing

Tomi Ahonen :-)

Tomas - University Place, WA

In thinking about a "modular" handset, I view it a little differently than most, I suppose.

For a true worldwide, all carrier handset, I would love to see a large selection of different devices, some with large screens, some with tiny, some with qwerty keyboards (or the local equivalent), other with basic phone keypads, etc.

The one thing they would ALL have is an "RF Bay" to simply plug in an RF section that will work on whatever system your carrier-of-the-moment uses.

(This might also get some good competition going between various manufacturers as some of them have noticeably superior RF performance compared to others.)

Standardized power bays taking (for example) two different standardized sizes of battery - normal and extended - that could be used simply by using a different cover over the power bay that would allow space for the extended battery.

With those two bays standardized, and allowing for any basic "chassis" to be used on any carrier's system, there might even be enough economy of scale to get some very interesting handsets out there.

It's an idea (especially the interchangable RF sections) that is interesting but also that I never expect to see.

Old Telco Engineer

Tomi Ahonen

Hi Tom

Good point. I think we're getting a more "high tech" solution for that, in Software Defined Radio (SDR) so the radio interface (within some reasonable parameters) can be adjusted by software. In some ways, that would be the "easiest" part ha-ha..

Tomi Ahonen :-)

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