Motorola's Project Ara: Phonebloks from an OEMby Joshua Ho on October 29, 2013 2:26 AM EST
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Phonebloks was a campaign that focused upon attracting the interest of OEMs by showing that there was an incredible amount of interest for a modular phone. This was mostly for reasons of reducing electronics waste, the potential for incredible customization, and the potential for reduced upgrade costs associated with the 1-2 year upgrade cycle. As the current model requires the purchase of an entire phone, upgrading a single “module”, or a set of modules that would update the device would reduce the cost of upgrading to the consumer, much like the current desktop PC system of upgrading individual components.
However, at the time it seemed unlikely that such a campaign would ever produce a meaningful result in the industry. Now, it might be less so as Motorola announced Project Ara, a platform that promises the same modularity that the Phonebloks campaign was promoting, and has also partnered with the creator of the Phonebloks campaign for this project.The concept is largely the same, with an endoskeleton and modules that make up the phone. The display, following the Phonebloks concept, is also likely to be its own module. While actual details of the concept are effectively nil, there are still an enormous number of challenges that such a design would face.
The first would be from a purely hardware perspective, as there is an unavoidable tradeoff between volumetric efficiency and modularity in such a design. While modern smartphones are effectively a tight stack of PCB, battery, and display, this adds in an entire interface for each module that connects them together. This means that the memory module would effectively go from the size of an average eMMC chip to around a full-size SD card due to the need for a durable interface that would connect it to the rest of the phone. This is most readily seen by the differences between the international and Korean LG G2, as the international variant has a ~15% larger battery by virtue of the sealed design that allowed for LG Chemicon’s curved battery pack with thinner walls to allow for more battery capacity.
The second issue in this case would be regulatory, as the FCC only tests single configurations for approval. Such a design would be incredibly challenging to get approval for as there could easily be unpredictable RF behavior from unexpected behavior from a specific setup of modules, or issues with the endoskeleton portion because the modules aren't all part of a single PCB that is unlikely to suffer issues with short circuits or other connection issues, while a modular design would face such challenges.
The final major issue is that of history, as the failure of Intel’s Whitebook initiative from 2006 makes it much harder to see a similar initiative succeeding in the smartphone space. As the Whitebook initiative promised a DIY, modular laptop, much like Phonebloks and Project Ara, and failed due to the rise of completely integrated laptop designs such as the Apple rMBP line, it seems unlikely that such a project would succeed without significant compromise, either in modularity or in competitiveness with the more integrated smartphones. While laptops like the rMBP are effectively impossible for the user to repair, much less open, they have become incredibly popular, and the PC OEMs have followed Apple’s lead in this regard, with consumer demand generally tending towards thinner and lighter laptops, just as the same demand seems to occur in the smartphone space, it is difficult to see such an initiative succeeding. While such initiatives are sure to garner widespread enthusiast support, enthusiasts generally lose their ability to influence the market once a market segment becomes popular with general consumers, as can be seen by the PC industry. However, it remains to be seen whether there is mass-market appeal for such a phone, and it may well be that Motorola is tapping a niche with enormous potential.
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dishayu - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkThis is the first thing to blow me away since Google Glass.
JoshHo - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkI'm definitely also excited, but I'm quite cautious in my optimism. Such a project would involve a large number of engineering challenges on top of those that already exist in smartphone design.
inighthawki - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkReally? Google glass blew you away? I've always seen it as a pretty gimmicky device...
steven75 - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - linkBlew you away? You must not have used Glass.
AkshaySankar - Friday, November 1, 2013 - linkMy thoughts exactly.
However this does seem to be a really good concept.
raptorious - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkAs cool as this concept seems, I just don't see it being practical. smartphones, more than any other device are volume constrained. Most consumers, given the choice between additional battery capacity and more modularity would choose the former. For me, it's just a no brainer. This is all to say nothing of the nightmare that is mobile SOCs. There exists absolutely no standardized platform in the smartphone space as there does for PCs. There are pretty staggering platform differences, even comparing 2 generations of mobile SOC's from the same vendor.
ShieTar - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkBut a user of a modular phone could put a second battery where the useless camera optics don't need to be.
I'm personally looking forward to this, though I assume we won't see anything definitive before 2015.
raptorious - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkNot a bad point, but in any case my point still stands: all other things being equal (the thickness of the phone included), you can get modularity or a bigger battery, not both
Ungo - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - linkI want you to carefully examine this picture of the iPhone 5s completely disassembled, courtesy iFixit:
Take a look at the camera module. If you can't find it, it's to the left of the camera window in the rear housing. Yes, that's the whole camera, optics and all. Now take a look at the battery and tell me how you're going to be able to substitute a meaningful amount of battery for the camera.
Then tell me about how you plan to make multiple batteries of dissimilar size and potentially different battery chemistry (cell voltage) work together and integrate into any random phone backplane you might buy. Apple has boasted about managing to use differing cells on their laptops, where they have all the space in the world for duplicating charge controller circuitry. In a system like this, you'd pretty much have to declare that every battery module must contain its own intelligent charge/discharge controller. Great, so now we have a serious amount of active intelligent electronics in the battery.
That segues into a larger problem, pretty much the fundamental problems with this concept. Ordinary cellphones rely on high integration to reduce power consumption and component count. Many functions are integrated into the SoC, and those which aren't are still pretty tightly tied to the SoC (for example, camera modules talk to phone SoCs through an interface designed just for cameras). If you want to make a "phoneblok" system where any "blok" site can hold a blok implementing just about any function, this forces the use of a generic, standardized, high performance, hot pluggable serial backplane interconnect with automatic discovery, etc. In practice, it'd almost certainly be PCIe. But this has a major cost. It means more silicon and power use in every phone module than is necessary (PCIe uses a lot of power and die area by mobile standards). And this is doubly true if you can't get suppliers interested in building modules with integrated PCIe interfaces. When your camera "blok" has to contain an extra chip to bridge the camera module to PCIe, you aren't in good shape.
ShieTar - Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - link"Then tell me about how you plan to make multiple batteries of dissimilar size and potentially different battery chemistry (cell voltage) work together and integrate into any random phone backplane you might buy."
Who says anything about different chemistry and random phones? It is quiet trivial to only offer a single power connector, but build batteries of different physical sizes for this exact phone system. Just because each site has a connector does not mean it needs to be used by the physical block.