Wednesday, February 28

What happened to modular smartphones, a well-intentioned bet that seems more unfeasible than ever

During the past decade we have seen several proposals around modular smartphones. They started from the idea of ​​being able to have telephones on which damaged components could be easily exchanged, or the quality of some of them improved simply like someone changing a Lego piece.

This concept seemed to be born with the favor of those most concerned about sustainability, the Do It Yourself and in general with whom I lived with disgust the fact that smartphones seem created to last three years. There are those who cannot resist hype of the novelties and changes it after twelve months, there are those who stretch it stoically and give it five years of life, but most of the renewals take place somewhere in between. A modular smartphone, on paper, could also make life easier for the group of those who extend the replacement.

dead on the way

None of that ended up happening, and already in 2022 It looks less and less like the modular mobile concept is going to be a success. Credit is running out. Project Ara came from the very hand of Google, which has no problem experimenting and risking as much as necessary until it finds the next success (it’s not a criticism, that’s much better than taking a nap). However, not even leaving such a large and relevant technology was of much use to him.

Google was the most relevant actor that put effort into modular, but delay after delay ended up killing the project

After years of promises in ‘waiting for Godot’ mode (“not today, but surely yes tomorrow”), Google ended up burying the project. It seemed that it would be possible through the Motorola brand, but the complexity of carrying out such an interesting and commercially viable project took it away. And that when he sold Motorola to Lenovo he kept Ara, and came to launch some prototypes, but there was no happy ending on the horizon for him.

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There was some daring who tried to do war on your own during those same years. LG found its crowning moment in the G2, with an impressive battery for the time and a very acceptable overall value. Different problems clouded the next two versions, and for the G5 they decided to bet on modularity.

Different accessories and replacements for a chassis almost by parts with which to try to attract the attention of the public. It did not succeed, it did not repeat the formula and today it has been more than a year since it closed its smartphone division. The G5 alone was responsible for more than $380 million lost in the quarter after its launch. Life isn’t good.

That same year, in an exercise of courage, precisely Motorola, already hand in hand with Lenovo, launched a Moto Z complemented with motomods, accessories in the same modular line. Water.

The arrival of original parts to repair yourself without loss of warranty is one more nail in the coffin of the modular

Recently there was news that, in addition to being positive for the consumer, is another nail in the coffin of the modular: Apple began to offer parts to repair the iPhone yourself, without having to go to an authorized technical service. And above all, without losing the guarantee.

It is so true that this movement It looks more like distress before the regulators than tactical conviction, as is also the case that perhaps the Apple client does not quite fit in with those who would be interested in a modular smartphone. Even so, this decision spurred on other manufacturers that followed in its footsteps, such as Samsung.

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The resistance in this battle is embodied, better than anyone, by Fairphone, whose mission is to be viable as a company by offering phones that are as sustainable as possible, such as the Fairphone 4. This terminal represents some of the problems with this concept. The commitments that must be assumed in exchange for its philosophy. For example, it is only IP54 certified, which withstands splashes, but not submersion in water. Every son of a neighbor in 2022 already offers IP68 at least, which does include immersions for the peace of mind of its owners.

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In defense of Fairphone, it must be said that their phones have software updates that are practically only offered by Apple in terms of longevity. Six years of updates and counting. It even offered camera modules to improve this component without having to renew the entire terminal. In 2020 they managed to sell 95,000 units. Many more than the 59,000 in 2019. Enough? Only Fairphone knows, but the comparisons are hateful. In 2020 Samsung sold 253 million terminals, Apple 199 million, Xiaomi 145 million and Oppo 111 million.

Precisely Xiaomi registered a patent for a modular phone in the spring of 2021. The scheme reveals three parts for a smartphone: on the top, cameras, motherboard and storage. In the center, the battery. And at the bottom, USB and speakers. The idea, combine these two modules to increase the capabilities of the terminal without having to completely replace it.

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Xiaomi patent.  Image: Let's Go Digital.

Xiaomi patent. Image: Let’s Go Digital.

Concept of what Xiaomi's modular mobile would look like based on its patent.  Image: Let's Go Digital.

Xiaomi patent. Image: Let’s Go Digital.

Xiaomi patent.  Image: Let's Go Digital.

Xiaomi patent. Image: Let’s Go Digital.

Xiaomi, which also knows something about risking and experimenting, has not yet passed the patent and it is unknown if one day this concept will start as a tangible project or if it is simply an idea that it wants to reserve in case it has a commercial interest at some point. .

At the moment, despite the good intentions of some or the innovative business ideas of others, there is no real minimally massive news, beyond anecdotes, of successful modular phones, and most of those who tried fell by the wayside. Mobile telephony is an industry in which everyone tries and always wins the same.

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