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The future is not the iPhone, but modular smartphones

Sahil Mohan Gupta
Sahil Mohan GuptaJun 01, 2016 | 13:48

The future is not the iPhone, but modular smartphones

Ever since the launch of the first iPhone, smartphones have become the most ubiquitous computing devices on the planet. They have managed to replace the modern PC and notebook for all intents and purposes.

That has happened mainly due to the breathtaking pace of innovation in mobile technology.

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If you load the phone with the most powerful hardware, chances are its battery life isn't going to be great. 

Mobile phone processors offer good speed for basic computing. The displays on phone are largely better than those on laptops and they also come with a more potent wireless stack. This has meant that most such innovations have also become incremental.

A person using a high-end phone from 2014 really doesn't need to invest in a new phone in 2016, because there haven't been too many meaningful improvements. So let's explore the next big what.

I believe modular phones could be the next revolution. Google, LG and Motorola are betting big on it. There some very logical reasons behind this. LG's new G5, which is launching in India on June 1, is the first widely available phone that has a modular aspect to it. The premise of the G5 is simple.

I found that it gives all the creature comforts that you'd expect from a device costing in-excess of Rs 50,000, and adds modularity to the device.

This means, there are a bunch of attachments that LG makes, which can be bought separately to augment the functionality further.

To be clear, this isn't a case of upgrading the phone in the truest sense. It is enhancing and extending the capability of what the phone can do. For instance, the camera grip module helps in offering a better grip to take pictures while adding manual controls and also a bigger battery. The audio module turns the phone into full-fledged high-resolution audio player, something most smartphones aren't known for. The idea is a novel one, but LG hasn't perfected it on this phone. To replace the modules, you have to crack open the back of the phone and remove the battery, which is a cumbersome process in my opinion.

But the concept is in its early days and eventually, it could be the next hardware revolution in hardware.

Google's "Project Ara" - a modular smartphone project - has a clearer vision of what a modular smartphone could do. Ironically, this project was started at Motorola, when Google owned the company.

However, that hasn't stopped Motorola from investing this space as under its new master - Lenovo. It is also expected to launch phones which will take on the modular smartphone concept head on.

Motorola is expected to launch a phone called the Moto Z, which could come with modules that allow the addition of a camera zoom. Google's Project Ara is working on a broader concept.

Project Ara envisions a smartphone which is fully modular. If you want more battery, you add a battery module with a larger battery, if you want a better camera, you could have a better module for that and so forth. If want a screen on the back on the phone, you could even get that!

Microsoft is also working on a concept which will help turn the phone into a full PC when attached to a display. It calls this concept "continuum".

The premise is to bring the capabilities of a full PC and extend them to a phone. Microsoft is rumoured to be working on a Surface phone, which could properly bridge the gap between a phone and a laptop, and take these modular concepts to a next level.

Modular smartphones are just logical, especially if you look at the high-end smartphone market. The laws of physics dictate the limitations of what can be had in a phone.

If you load the phone with the most powerful hardware, chances are its battery life isn't going to be great. Modularity eliminates this compromise.

While LG has taken baby steps with the G5, eventually modular smartphones will enable devices which are completely adaptable in accordance with the use-case. Think of these as more like assembled computers that come out of places like Delhi's Nehru Place. 

Right now, smartphones are limited by the shackles of design, software, hardware oomph and limitation of form. The G5 adheres to all these rules, while managing to add an element of modularity.

That's commendable. Even as a premium smartphone, it has the basic ingredients to take on the likes of the iPhone 6S and the Samsung Galaxy S7, but it is no revolution. However, undoubtedly, it is a step towards the revolution the premium segment of the smartphone market is in dire need of.

I expect more of the same from the likes of Motorola and Google later in 2016, which will give smartphone users something to look forward to.

Last updated: June 01, 2016 | 13:48
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