Here comes the modular mobile revolution

Modular gadgets are flexible, powerful, upgradeable and eco-friendly. What's not to love?

ara foodtruck

The future of consumer electronics will be delivered this year in a Puerto Rican food truck.

I'm talking about Google's Project Ara and its modular smartphones. The first devices will be distributed from a fleet of converted food trucks starting in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and spreading across the island. (More on that below.)

While some tech fans have heard about Project Ara, they may not have heard about other modular gadgets -- or even about the modular mobile revolution.

The kids who grew up playing with Transformers and Legos are now building mobile consumer electronics that work in the same way -- you snap them together for the custom device you want.

The same trends that are driving mobile computing, wearable computing, the Internet of Self and the Internet of Things are also enabling the modular revolution: Powerful, low-power chips, Bluetooth LE, miniaturization, distributed manufacturing, 3D printing and of course Moore's Law, which never stops making electronics cheaper and faster.

Let's put this together and see what we get:

Project Ara

Project Ara comes out of Google's innovative ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects), which was part of Motorola when Google bought the company, but not part of Motorola when Google sold it.

projectara Google

Project Ara will let you add functions and features and create whatever custom phone you desire.

The base model target for a basic Ara smartphone without modules (which Google calls an "endo") is $50, then each additional module is extra.

Users will be able to buy and add extra batteries, special cameras, more memory, an extra SIM card, special sensors, photo printers and more powerful antennas.

Ara phones will come with three Ara-specific apps: The Ara Configurer, which walks you through building your Ara phone; the Ara Manager, which enables you to to manage the modules; and the Ara Marketplace, which is the online store for buying new modules.

Google is rolling out the first wave of devices in Puerto Rico (in partnership with local carriers OpenMobile and Claro) because, according to the company, some three-quarters of the people who use the Internet there do so via smartphones.

When users buy their first Ara phones, they'll be able to choose from a menu of more than 20 module options, with hundreds expected eventually. Google also provides all the specs and information needed for companies to use 3D printers to make their own custom modules.

Some phones will be sold based on themes, such as photography or hiking.

Ara modules will be built and sold by Google, but also by any company that chooses to use Google's development kit. (One company alone, which is called YEZZ, has already created 56 Ara phone concept modules.)

Because it's Google's, Project Ara is the best-known modular gadget project. But there are others. And all of them are really cool.


phonebloks Phonebloks

One of the original approaches to modular phones, Phonebloks aims at making smartphones more environmentally friendly.

Phonebloks is a modular smartphone project that began a few years ago when a designer named Dave Hakkens experienced a broken smartphone camera. He was concerned about the waste involved in replacing the whole phone for a new one just because one component needed to be changed.

Phonebloks is not a product, but an initiative to encourage the entire consumer electronics industry to embrace modular smartphone development. In fact, the community that Phonebloks cultivated was central to the creation and evolution of Project Ara.


The Puzzlephone, from a company called Circular Devices, is a modular smartphone concept similar to Project Ara but simpler. Instead of having many different modules, the Puzzlephone can handle just two.

puzzlephone Puzzlephone

The Puzzlephone has fewer and larger modules, and has a screen that lasts for 10 years.

The base is mainly a screen which is designed to last 10 years. Another module is for the battery, and yet another is for the processing and electronics. The idea is that if your battery wears out, you can swap out the battery without wasting the rest. If you want to upgrade for performance, you can do that without throwing away the battery and screen.

The company says it will ship its first Puzzlephone by the end of the year. The initial offering will run Android, but Circular Devices says it may choose alternative operating systems like Windows Phone, Firefox OS or Sailfish OS. A single phone might even have OS modules. By swapping out the Android module and replacing it with a Windows module, you could hot-swap operating systems.

Nexpaq modular smartphone case

Modularity for smartphones is nice, but it's requiring a wholesale architectural change to all aspects of smartphones. A lighter approach is to add modular features to a case, which attaches to an existing smartphone.

nexpaq Nexpaq

The Nexpaq modular smartphone case provides some of the benefits of a modular smartphone, but you can use your existing phone instead of buying a new one.

One Kickstarter project is doing exactly that. The Nexpaq modular smartphone case, which is scheduled for shipping in November.

The Nexpaq has Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 and S6 versions and comes with six module slots.

The company has already developed 12 modules, including a breathalyzer, speaker, flash drive, USB module, extra battery and laser pointer.

MODR modular case

modr MODR

The MODR modular case give you wireless charging plus small modules that provide focused benefits.

Another modular case product is the MODR (currently being crowdfunded and available for pre-order on Indegogo), which takes an interesting approach: The base unit is a Qi-compatible wireless charger. On top of that module, there are slots for users to hot-swap in small new components.

The MODR offers a lens mount for using several lenses, a USB hub, an LED flashlight and an NFC module. It also has a battery pack and pico projection modules.

Blocks smartwatch

Like the modular smartphones and smartphone cases, the Blocks smartwatch has hot-swappable modules that add functionality to the watch. But what's different is that the modules link together in a chain to form the watch band.

blocks Blocks Wearables

The Blocks modular smartwatch puts the band to work, with each link in the band doing a different job.

Blocks Wearables, the company behind the Blocks smartwatch, was a finalist in last year's Make it Wearable contest held by Intel.

The Blocks has a core module that runs full-blown Android Lollipop (not Google's Android Wear smartwatch OS) and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset. The core has the watch face and it also supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It also has a motion sensor and a microphone. Blocks Wearables says the watch will pair and work with both Android phones and iPhones.

Modules are powered by ultra low-power ARM processors and connected to each other and to the main module via a proprietary connector design that looks a bit like an audio plug. The first module options will include a GPS module, an SMS module, a heart rate monitor, a battery and an NFC payments module.

Blocks is even trying to offer modular skins for the band, partnering with luxury menswear jewelry brand Tateossian for different styles of "shells" that cover the band modules.

Axel modular headphones

Axel modular headphones are designed around the concept that different styles of music require different kinds of headphones -- or, at least, different "Soundscapes" (speaker units that can be swapped).

axel headphones Axel

By swapping in and out of different "Soundscape" modules, you can essentially get different kinds of headphones for different kinds of listening.

Axel is another Kickstarter project. The product will come in two lines -- one called ID, and the other called FX (on-ear and over-the-ear, respectively).

Each comes with three "Soundscapes" called Soundscape Pure, Soundscape Deep and Soundscape Core, with each having different physical designs to enhance certain kinds of music.

The headphones can also be customized when you order with different headband inserts and other parts, which arrive as separate pieces that require assembling.

Putting it all together

The modular mobile revolution promises customization, flexibility, high performance, lower cost and eco-friendliness.

The first crop of devices in this category demonstrates that companies can approach the benefits of modularity from different ways, which enable different user benefits.

This is just the beginning of a new world of mobile devices that you can transform on the fly to have special capabilities or to last longer.

The modular concept won't go mainstream this year or next. But for hardcore tech fans like you and me, it starts this year in a food truck in Puerto Rico.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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