It is not a term that is commonly used anymore, but the term “modular phone” was once popular and the concept held a lot of promise but now, it is all but forgotten.
What is a modular phone and why was the term even popular once upon a time?
Read: What are smartphones made of?
What is a modular phone?
To understand the term “modular phone”, we need to look at the computer that smartphones are trying to emulate. The PC. On PCs, especially Desktops, users can swap out computer components and replace them e.g. RAM, internal storage drives, CPUs, webcams, monitors etc. This feature makes PCs very easily upgradeable and modifiable. If your PC monitor is misbehaving, get a new one. If your PC is slow or hanging, swap out the RAM or CPU for a better on.
Now imagine if that concept is applied to a smartphone and voila! you have a modular phone. A modular phone is a smartphone in which the parts can be swapped out or replaced by the user. In order to achieve this, the parts of the phone would come assembled as modules, hence the name modular phone.
So for example, if you did not like your camera or it was damaged, you could simply take out the camera module and replace it with a better one. This concept was a very novel one that received a very good reception. Imagine swapping out your SoC for a better one or getting a bigger battery. The idea was too good to be true.
And that was all it was, an idea that was too good to be true. A smartphone was not like a PC so building one where the parts were swappable posed too many design and logistical challenges for smartphone companies. The few companies who did try out these concepts such as Modu, Phonebloks, Project Ara, LG and Motorola either abandoned the concept or could not follow through.
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For the others, it actually made no sense from a business and financial standpoint. If they made modular phones with swappable parts, users will prefer to buy upgrades instead of new phones. This would be a financial disaster for them. As a result, many refused to work on modular phones.
Modular phones may yet make a return in the future as Google still has plans for project Ara and Xiaomi has just obtained a patent for a modular phone. So the idea is not entirely dead yet. We may yet see a modular phone in the near future.
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