back to article Modular smartphones floated by Dutch designer chap

There isn't a product, or even a prototype, but if it could be made to work, why not turn the smartphone into a bunch of replaceable modular components on a standard backplane? It may or may not be feasible, but the notion gathered enough attention that the proposal page, on crowdfunding site Thunderclap.it, was hosed by visitor …

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Bronze badge

Love the idea.

The raspberry Pi is not far off from this. You can add screens and batteries (I've got it running off an external phone battery nicely) and usb wifi etc.

Had a similar idea years ago for doing this with Lego style blocks, but alas it's implementation that's key, not the ideas. :(

Pic is here (though it was based on PC/Palmpads back then. :P ) http://fav.me/d6lz7sz

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JDX
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Re: Love the idea.

Can't you buy a "phone chip" to plug in to a Pi?

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Re: Love the idea.

1 plus vote for the piPhone.

Pi case with screen + three module spaces; 1.battery, 2.phone module, 3.spare. Where do I sign?

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Saying nay

Not only would you lose the slimness as stated, you would lose the benefits of integrating components, and the cost benefits that come from scale, i.e. selling several tens of millions of a single product. Due to the mechanical and electrical interfaces required to make it work, the parts will also be either more prone to failure, or more expensive to manufacture (or both!) Even if someone managed to do it, I can't see many being sold.

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Re: Saying nay

Slimness is overrated IMO. There's no reason I should need to be able to shave with my edge of my smartphone. I'd rather have a device which feels steady in my hand.

PCs have been pretty successful, and still are, without everything being soldered to one board. They achieved this success through modularity, upgradeability, and the use of standard interfaces.

The cost benefits of scale would come from mass-producing the modules. Individual modules can be used far beyond just in a single device or brand, so scale even better than all-in-one devices. Think CPUs, flash drives, wireless chips; all parts of smartphones which often scale - in terms of units manufactured/sold - far beyond the numbers achieved by any single device.

That said, I can't see many phones of the proposed variety being sold either, not while Jobs-envy still permeates the industry.

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Not only that, but also...

... software support.

There's enough fragmentation due to varying hardware platforms in the Android arena (for example) at the moment. Seems to me that all the necessary virtualisation/abstraction layers it would require for everything to play nicely together (or even at all) and relying on myriad component vendors to maintain a decent level of support would make for a phone which would perform somewhere between "like shit" and "not at all".

On many fronts, implementation would be a total bitch - but I do love the idea.

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Re: Saying nay

"Slimness is overrated IMO. There's no reason I should need to be able to shave with my edge of my smartphone. I'd rather have a device which feels steady in my hand."

I'll second that. All this nonsense of utlra slim phones simply means more opportunity for them to slip and get dropped, and half of them then have cases around them that doubles the thickness anyway. "Thin" looks good in marketing babble and possibly in the showroom. In the real world, I reckon there's a sweetspot for most people around about 9.5mm.

Can this proposal achieve that?

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Re: Saying nay

"The cost benefits of scale would come from mass-producing the modules."

The market for such an idea won't be anywhere near as large.

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Re: Saying nay

> and the cost benefits that come from scale,

I think you have that backwards.

Standardised components in this fashion would escalate economies of scale in the same way that standardised PC components do.

They would become commodity items.

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I've seen a similar idea before - that though had a block you kept in your pocket which was essentially the phone - radios, cpu, memory etc.. and connected via bluetooth to a screen, one was the size of a regular phone and acted as it (mic's, speaker and it's own power), another was tablet size and then scaled to a desktop at home.

All connected to the same block, the same source, so apps and experience was sync'd across the devices.

I liked the sound of that, it has the benefit of this system (can replace screen/camera without replacing the rest, or visa versa) but has the added benefit of everything sync'ing along.

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Glad I'm not the only one who remembers an Israeli start up demoing actual prototypes about 5-10 years ago. Was covered here at the time - can't remember much of the details except a combination of ooh nice idea and ooh looks fugly.

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Bronze badge

Been thinking for a while now that that's the way to do it. Didn't know someone had floated the idea already, but I think it's an idea which should be revisited with some updated technology (Miracast, WiGig, etc) particularly with all the coming wearable devices. I think the biggest fail in Gear, Glass and the other wearables is that they're stand alone devices instead of wireless peripherals.

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Anonymous Coward

Given most people in the world are either using a smartphone, tablet or laptop as their computer I'd say the masses aren't interested in modular computers.

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Sorry,

IMHO, most people are NOT using any of those devices.

Can you give us some evidence to support your claim?

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No

They are not using tablets or smartphones as computers. They are using them as media players and simple games consoles. They are not computers, I don't know why the press thinks they are.

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JDX
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Re: No

They are computers, for once the press is right. The fact they're not USED as PCs is the key.

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Re: No@ jb99

They are not using tablets or smartphones as computers. They are using them as media players and simple games consoles. They are not computers, I don't know why the press thinks they are.

Given the default messaging capabilities, the fairly high functionality inherent in any phone's music player, and the complexity in many games, I'm not sure why you can't see that a modern phone is a computer, and arguably is the democratisation of computing (certainly in access terms; in privacy terms perhaps less so).

What would your definition be? Something like this, perhaps:

com·put·er (km-pytr): A three part device. The first part is a beige box containing a little exercised but unfeasibly fast processor, located on a desk surrounded by old coffee cups, crumbs and sweet wrappers, takeaway food cartons, and out of date print outs that must obscure the input devices. The second part is a fingerprint besmirched display screen, which has only three states: Off; lines and lines of code; adult content. The third, and in many ways defining component is an unhygenic male operative slouched in front of the desk, whose conversation and social skills are indicative of mild to moderate autism. Optional extras include the operative mumbling angrily to passers-by using words like grep, starnix, buffer overflow, packet sniffing arf arf, and the like. The word "user" may be frequently uttered, but only if spoken with Rinzler's curled lip,embodying contempt and anger, to aurally imply the word is synonymous with "loser" rather than "yew-ser" which might otherwise imply appropriate employment of a tool.

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Re: No@ jb99

It's not the things it does that make it a "computer", it's the things the user can do. Can you program on an iPhone/Tab/Android? I doubt it. It's a consumer device until it adds functionality the user can use to do "work".

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Re: No@ jb99

In the specific case of Android, yes you can actually program on it directly. AIDE is an IDE running on Android that supports the full edit-compile-run cycle...... That being said, you don't *need* to be able to do this, in order to use your tablet/phone to do real work.

I regularly use Teamviewer, and/or RDP via a VPN to connect to remote machines for work purposes, so yes I'm using a tablet for real work. I also create content directly on the device itself using various tools, such as an Android office suite, Google Docs, and Evernote.

I freely admit that's is not my primary device for work purposes, but I can envisage a future, not too far off, where something like an Asus Transformer/Padfone becomes my primary work device.

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Re: No@ jb99

Funny... I would have SWORN that Autodesk made computer software for people that do actual work...

You know... Like here:

http://www.autodesk.com/mobile-apps

Or, if you don't care for Autodesk, there's software suitable for doing pro-level work here:

https://itunes.apple.com/US/app/id400083414?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Or here:

http://www.higheredtechdecisions.com/article/pro_video_editing_apps_for_android_and_ios

Or here:

http://appfinder.lisisoft.com/ipad-iphone-apps/prokon-structural-analysis.html

Oh, wait... Did you mean that ONLY having a software editing "environment"* counts as " functionality the user can use to do 'work'"?

...Or is "programming" the only thing that counts as "work"?

I must say; you seem to have an awfully limited definition of what counts as "functionality", "useful", and "work". That's not very technical, Ben.

--------------------

* ...And what ever happened to ""REAL" programmers use vi, anyway"? Ooooh, look! A vi-based text editor for iOS:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vim/id492668168?mt=8

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Happy

I want one!

Fantastic idea! Finally I could put together the type of phone I want or even manufacture my own components to the public specifications. A bit thicker would be a small price to pay for the customizeability and upgradeability. Rather than decreasing reliability, this modular construction would actually make it cheaper and easier to procure and replace faulty components.

I agree that it's unlikely to get off the ground, though, because these benefits may not appeal to the mass market.

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Problems Problems

Some problems I see:

- The logic built into the backplane will have to be pretty funky to recognise and deal with signals from the pins of all those different components, from present and into the future.

- If a common (serial?) data bus is needed by all components, then this will increase their complexity and price, and ...

- Upgrading the "speed" component is not going to be much good if the backplane bottlenecks it, or the other (older) components can't keep up.

- There's the mechanical issues with keeping all those blocks in contact with the backplane during an active life. Movement, stress, dust and moisture ingress.

- If one's choice of components doesn't fit (or fit tidily) on the backplane, what happens then? Add blank components, Tetris style?

So, basically, it's a nice idea to physically implement what the phone makers currently do in the logical design, but I'm not sure it will be workable in the Real World/.

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Re: Problems Problems

Basically reduce the problem and design down to the basic level.

Have one "block" as the phone (CPU possibly some ram). Then add everything else as USB style interface. With the main case/base being like a hub. The only part that needs really fast response times is the memory, which could be restricted to a single port, or could sacrifice speed for putting it else where (Even my PC can use a ReadyBoost USB flash card for system like memory access).

The final product, if ever developed would not look like this. They would probably keep the CPU/RAM/Antenna in a single block/part and the cameras, screen and battery would be interchangeable.

Aiming for the sky is fine if you realize you have to come back down to earth. ;)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Have one "block" as the phone (CPU possibly some ram).

Why do you have the cpu/ram as the "phone"? Surely the phone-ish stuff should be handled by a modem-like add-on to the cpu/ram core building block.

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Re: [phone] modem-like add-on

... hmm, my decade-old Zaurus PDA had a CF phone add-on thingy advertised at one point, if I recall correctly (although I never got - or wanted - one at the time). Might not even have been Z specific, I suppose.

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Compromise....

I've thought for some time that braking the IP gateway & radios out of a phone would be a pragmatic idea. So, you'd have a shared MiFi-like black box stashed in a pocket or wherever.

The myriad of portable, personal devices would just communicate through it.

It might be good business for the device makers: more, smaller & cheaper devices, shorter refresh buying cycles and more formats (trad phone format, pen, wrist, tablets, etc).

Network providers might like the idea less as there's fewer SIMs/contracts to sell.

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Re: Compromise....

Yes, this is the idea I keep ending up at. Once you put the "phone" radios into a separate module with a battery, you basically end up with an extended sim, which can hook to any screen interface / processing unit - run out of battery (screens are notoriously hungry), pick up another device and make that life saving call. Also I carry 2 phones constantly, but i need 2 sims / radios, not 2 screens / processors.

The modularity of the rest is a nice idea, but it will never be cost effective.

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Deja CPU?

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/10/20/motorola_bluetooth_ixi_mobile/

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Doomed

Much as I like the idea - though the practicalities of interconnection seem to have been dealt with in a hand-waving manner - Vested Interest would never permit it.

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Is this not superfically similar to Jolia? The phone from the ex-Nokia staffers that comes in two parts that can be slotted together.

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"The phone from the ex-Nokia staffers that comes in two parts that can be slotted together."

Never mind Jolia, Nokia phones was a loss making module, slotted out of Nokia Corporation, and soon to be slotted into Microsoft's "acquisition disintegration slot". The same one previously and briefly occupied by aQuantive. And before that TellMe, Groove, Placeware, Massive, LinkExchange, Greenfield Online, Navision, Yammer.

Take your modular business, place it in the slot. Close the lid, announce to world + dog that great things will happen, press button, and Poooof! In a flash of light, hundred of millions, or maybe a few billion dollars of shareholder value are reduced to a few scattered sub atomic particles.

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Brilliant idea,

Would love it to be the "next big thing" in mobile technology, can't see it happening unfortunately as the established players & vested interests will (in the words of Bob Marley) "Kill them before they grow".

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One major problem...

Nothing to do with the technical aspects - just that I can't help feeling people want to upgrade because the new thingy is *new*, not because there's a specific new module that's in some way improved.

We don't buy a new engine for our car; we buy a new car.

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Thumb Up

Wouldn't you also be able to buy a bigger base block and just build yourself a tablet, as well?

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Meh

What problem is this attempting to solve?

More accurately, what problem is this attempting to solve that is important enough to throw away a decade or more of clever component packaging and miniaturisation for?

GJC

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Different parts have different life times

When a PC gets tangled in malware, most of the public go to PC World and buy a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, box, power supply, DVD player, hard disk, motherboard, super-duper CPU, RAM and graphics card. Anyone with basic computer literacy and a screwdriver updates only the parts that will make a difference when required.

I have wanted standard laptop components for decades, and they are now approximately practical (tape a monitor into the lid of an attaché case and a raspberry Pi with some USB components). Much of the cost of a laptop is the display - the second biggest cost is the bundled crap that is inflicted on me because of segmentation. Modular laptops would save customers lots of money, which is why the OEMs do not make them.

Modular phones do not exist for the same reasons as modular laptops. (Does Dell still swap some pins on the power connector to annoy customers who want to upgrade their PSU or mother board?). If love the idea of a modular phone. The only way they will exist is as a bunch of DIY components. Some people would like to pay for a quality camera. Others would like to save money there. I would like a physical off-switch for the microphone. I would like a good display, but not have to replace it when I upgrade to a more efficient CPU. I do not want to replace the entire phone when the battery no longer charges.

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Re: Different parts have different life times

Well, thanks for taking the time to type out your thoughts, but I'm afraid I'm still not getting it. I can't see any way that a modular phone will be anything close to as slick and convenient as a modern smartphone.

Further, and the real killer, I can't see the mass market buying them, so they will be small production run stuff, resulting in high prices, neatly invalidating the one big advantage that they should have over a monolithic phone.

Still, we shall see. I guess we don't need much more miniaturisation before the idea might fly.

GJC

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Re: What problem is this attempting to solve? @GJC

"what problem is this attempting to solve that is important enough to throw away a decade or more of clever component packaging and miniaturisation for?"

BURN THE HERETIC! BURN HIM!

Around these parts most of us think it hugely clever to launch paper planes in space, to f@rt around finding improbable uses for Raspberry Pis, we love the idea of loons trying to reinvent the airship, or boffins playing with railguns to fire bricks at Mach 5, of geeks cobbling together disparate bits of code to cause areas of a screen to flash selectively, or the simple meccano-like act of assembling your own PC, and you, sir, you have the temerity to challenge the dream with common sense. A pox on common sense, say I.

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Re: What problem is this attempting to solve?

> what problem is this attempting to solve that is important enough to throw away a decade or more of clever component packaging and miniaturisation for?

How about the enormous mountain of phones that are thrown away every week most of which are tossed because of the failure of a single component?

How many people have bemoaned the passing of their favourite phone form factor from Nokia because it stopped working, probably because of the failure of a single component? Wouldn't it be better if the component were designed to be swappable? How about just being able to upgrade the camera to keep up with the Jones'?

The equivalence with a desktop PC and its commodisation is very relevant here. The benefits are even more important with the accelerating uptake of mobile phones around the world and the incredible amount of waste that naturally ensue because they are designed to be unrepairable.

I like the idea but I think it will fail for two reasons:

1) Vested interests would spurn the idea of co-operation on a backplane standard. They already spend inordinate amounts of time in court trying to stop each other doing anything that might be construed as similar.

2) I think the initial cost of these things would be prohibitive before scaling kicked in. That's always a big problem for someone effectively starting from scratch.

Personally, I think it is an awesome idea. Differentiation would be possible on the external design surrounding the backplane and the individual components themselves. Nokia already do this to a certain extent with their cameras.

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Re: @Ledswinger

You, Sir, make a compelling point, and I apologise for my brief transgression into the world of good commercial sense. I shall ensure it does't happen again.

GJC

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MikroElectronika offers a range of embedded development tools that you can use to achieve something similar to this.I've been using components from them for about a year for rapid prototyping. It makes my life as a programmer much easier to be able to swap hardware features on a prototype without needing to wield a soldering iron. Almost all of their expansion boards use the same footprint. Their processors are not fast enough to be usefull in a smartphone, but a minimalist feature phone is possible (if you are willing to carry around an expensive, fragile, ugly, brick-sized phone)

Have a look at http://www.mikroe.com/click/

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Happy

MikroElectronika offers a range of embedded ...

Actually, these modules are great for breadboarding, then you can copy the designs for even greater savings.

I know someone who made a combat robot from their designs!

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I see a market...

It would be great marketed for kids. Any "bulkyness" would then become a feature, and incremental upgrades more easily financeed by pocket money.

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Re: I see a market...

Minecraft phone anyone?

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Mobile with a PC out look

Got my vote.

If they take the IBM route, they only need to specify the buses.

Most digital hardware is designed to be addressable, just agree on a standard.

The phone may not even be any thicker if the "case" manufacturer does their job well.

Modular design was popular up until the market fragmented into various socket camps.

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Silver badge

I'm not that convinced that Ralph Lauren -esque thinness is that big of a selling point for smartphones, at least by the unscientific sample of "my friends who have smartphones".

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FAIL

So let me get this straight... They say we are chucking away too many phones, so his idea is to make the whole phone fully customisable, so you just throw away smaller parts of it rather than the whole thing... You make it faster you're going to need a bigger battery - 2 blocks to chuck away. You've made it faster you may as well get a better camera too another block to chuck away. If you've got a better camera you're going to need more storage another block to chuck away..... Hmmm maybe I'll stick to my Galaxy S4. The build quality isn't great, but it's not held together by two screws and the power of positive thought

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Modularization

How many of these modules could find their way into other embedded kit e.g washing machines; microwave ovens; TVs; TV remotes; Skype cameras/speakers? Car media players/reversing cameras and screens; Journey video cameras; media players;

You name it and build your own!

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It's been done, and it didn't take off

An Israeli company, Modu, created a modular phone system, with the goal of swapping the heart of the phone between different bodies for different uses, but in the end it didn't work.

http://www.zdnet.com/blog/mobile-news/modular-phone-maker-modu-closing-doors/454

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