How would you like to be able to swap your phone's camera out for a better one at a moment's notice? Or replace its processor with a faster one on the fly? That's the future of modular phones.
Every few weeks we catch up with Vodafone’s resident futurologist Patrick Harrison-Harvey. He’s the man that sees tomorrow’s phones before anyone else, so he knows what phones we’ll all be fawning over in 2015 and beyond.
In our latest chat, Patrick was keen to talk about something coming in the early months of next year: modular phones. Could we soon live in a world where you never need to buy a new handset ever again?
“One of the latest things I’ve been looking at is Google’s Project Ara,” says Patrick, “which is a modular phone concept.”
Modular? Put simply, Project Ara is a concept for a phone that’s built with uniform slots on the back that fit a variety of different components, letting you replace and update the different parts of your phone without replacing the phone itself.
“You could give it a better camera, or more storage, or bigger speakers or battery.”
“Google has already run a developer conference on it,” Patrick tells us, “and they’ve put January 2015 in as their target date. I don’t know whether they’ll hit that, but for me it’s a very interesting concept. That’s mainly because of the sheer flexibility it offers in terms of being able to change your phone’s functionality at a moment’s notice, really easily.
“You could give it a better camera, or more storage, or bigger speakers or battery depending on what you’re going to be using your phone for that day. You just swap out the various components. I saw one component that was like a gaming controller – you slotted it in and then the phone resembled a full gamepad. So there’s scope for doing innovative things too, beyond just updating the main phone features.”
Check it out in the video below…
“They’ve released a developer toolkit for making those modules, and that explains how it all works. So anyone can build these different components, and that’s interesting because you could end up having a phone with a battery part made by Duracell, and a camera from Nikon, and a processor from Samsung, etc. That could be the future.”
But aside from being able to pick and choose your phone’s components, there is another reason why Project Ara is a great idea…
“Ara is a concept designed around sustainability,” Patrick says. “It uses far more resources to have people replace their entire phones every year than it does to replace just individual components.
“It makes a lot of sense on that front – whenever the latest quad-core processors come out you could just swap it in. It’s a bit like how home PCs can be upgraded as you go; you just take a bit out and put a new bit in, and that way you never have to buy a new PC to stay current, and don’t have to throw an old one away.”
“The make or break thing – the thing that will make it a game-changer – is in getting those components right. And the important thing will be their cost. If they’re quite expensive, it won’t take off.”
“Ara is a concept designed around sustainability…”
And that all comes down to economies of scale, or – in other words – how the manufacturers can make a wide variety of bespoke components at a reasonable price. “If you’re a manufacturer and you have to buy lots of different camera modules instead of one, then it might not be that economic.
“And if you’re going to have to pay £50 to upgrade a camera module, it might not be worth it.”
But Patrick’s quietly confident that Ara and the modular phone will still come to fruition. “I’m sure there’s a grand plan there at Google to solve all the possible issues,” he says. “How and when it’ll come to market, I don’t know, but it’s really interesting.”
The future of phone platforms… iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry are the main players in the mobile operating system game, but what others are there on the scene? Click here to find out.