IT considers portable electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets very different products than traditional desktop computers or laptops. Desktops and laptops are repairable if they break, and have much longer functional lifespans than phones and tablets. A new smartphone design concept, including offerings from startups and Motorola’s Project Ara, may change that thinking. Motorola’s Project Ara proposes a smartphone that is a modular device, with user interchangeable battery, processor, memory, audio, wireless chips, gyroscopes, and accelerometers. This hardware interchangeability partners well with the open-source, free Android operating system made available to handset manufacturers by Google.

IT departments routinely purchase hard drive, RAM, video card, and wireless card replacements and upgrades to repair and prolong the capabilities of their computers, which eases technology burdens on the IT budget and makes better use of the initial investment. As budgets continue to tighten, IT would certainly wish to do the same with their mobile devices. The cost savings associated with replacing components over replacing the entire computer can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the machine. If popping a $50 processor upgrade into a phone chassis nets another two years of use, it would be hard for IT to resist a switch to the modular devices.

Practicality concerns aside, there are three primary issues with the modular smartphone model.

The first is cost. Currently, consumers rarely purchase mobile devices from the manufacturers. The majority of data-connected devices sold in the U.S. are done through carriers, who subsidize the majority of the initial costs in exchange for the consumer signing a long-term contract. This business model is somewhat profitable to the manufacturer, very profitable for the telephone company, and gives the consumer a chance to test the new technology at a lower initial cost.

As smartphones have become more mainstream, however, both Apple and Google have opened retail channels to put their devices directly in consumers’ hands, treating carriers as nothing more than a network connection. The number of consumers using these channels is not large, with most continuing to sign on to two-year agreements in exchange for a $200 subsidized smartphone rather than a $650 unsubsidized one.

A modular device, with a much longer lifespan, takes away the carrier’s primary sales method of “new every two”, and they likely would not choose to offer it at any subsidized rate, or carry it in their stores. Consumers wishing to purchase the device would do so without the carrier’s subsidy.

The second issue is tied to the first. Some carriers – most commonly those not using SIM cards and requiring a more physical registration process - must agree to support a device on their network, that is, allowing their towers to accept an ESN’s traffic. A phone like this, and the business model it proposes, is detrimental to the networks and some could choose not to allow them at all. Unfortunately, the largest carrier in the U.S., and the one that is so reliable and business-friendly, has a history of squaring off against manufacturers for control and winning. No integration with the business-friendly carriers would definitely limit a modular device’s business appeal.

The final concern is one that affects more consumers than business users: operating systems upgrades. Just as computer hardware is upgraded, and phone hardware would be upgradable in a modular device, software is upgradable. The traditional method for software upgrading involves versions of the new software to be developed for each device’s specific hardware then distribute it. For Apple, the company handles the software development and testing. For Google’s Android, which is on a larger variety of devices from multiple manufacturers, the cost to develop and distribute the tailored software packages is split between device manufacturers and the carriers. Select Android devices, Google’s own Nexus devices and “developer edition” high-end smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, are configured in such a way that they can use stock Android releases distributed directly from Google as part of its AOSP program.

Modular smartphones seemingly offer a number of business-friendly benefits if they are ever developed, but there are still critical issues that need to be addressed.

Photo courtesy of Project Ara on dscout.
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Martin Przeworski

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