Most modern smartphones look similar. Whether it’s an Apple iPhone, Samsung or LG Android or another smartphone brand, they all share a similar build and design.
Modular mobile phones aim to change that, letting you create your own smartphone with exactly the features and parts you need.
Modular phones also promise to reduce electronic waste and repair bills as broken parts can be swapped out for new ones.
How does a modular phone work?
Individual components can be slotted into the main body of a modular phone, so you can customise it to suit your needs. Components are available across a range of mobile phone functions, with modules for digital cameras, GPS, additional storage and extra batteries. By adding modules, you can create your own smartphone – such as exchanging the camera with an extra battery for a longer life.
Central to this modular design is the phone operating system’s ability to recognise and use the new module. Adding a Bluetooth module would tell the software it can now use Bluetooth, and ensure it appears on the phone’s interface as an option.
What are the advantages of a modular phone?
Modular phones offer a range of advantages over regular smartphones, although some are less obvious:
As modules can be swapped, mobile phone manufacturers can release new modules as technology updates or becomes cheaper. Rather than buy a completely new mobile phone to get a better digital camera, a module phone lets you swap out the old camera module with a newer, improved version. A good example is the 5G add-on for Motorola's modular Moto Z range.
Lower repair bills
If your mobile phone camera breaks, you could face a costly repair bill or even have to buy a new phone. Even batteries can be costly to replace these days. A modular phone makes swapping out the broken component cheaper and quicker.
Reduce electronic waste
Mobile phones contain lots of toxic components that are hazardous for the environment, and the regular upgrade cycle of mobile phones mean many discarded mobile phones end up in landfill. By allowing mobile phones to be cheaply upgraded, there’s less need to throw away the entire phone, lowering waste in both manufacturing a new phone and recycling the old one.
In the United States alone 150 million mobile phones are thrown away every year. That's a pretty shocking number, especially when you factor in the resources needed to build just one smartphone - 7kg of high value gold ore, 1kg of typical copper ore, 750g of typical tungsten ore and 200g typical nickel ore. In the UK just 12% of mobile phones are recycled. That's a lot of wasted material going into landfill, it's no wonder that e-waste is considered the fasted growing waste stream in the world, with around 50 million tonnes produced globally.
Have it your way
Modular phones could, theoretically, let you customise the look, feel and shape of your phone so it’s comfortable to use, positioning buttons and controls where you want. They also let you choose the peripherals that work for you - need a better camera, perhaps even a 360 degree camera? Need a portable printer? These things can be attached to modular phones.
Where can I buy a modular phone?
Modular phones are still in their infancy – and have only in the last few years made the jump from idea to physical product, and have yet to become popular with the public. The small amount of mainstream modular phones available include the LG G5 and Moto Z, both released in 2016, and Shift6M, released in 2018. They have limited modular features – on the LG G5 you can slide out the battery from the base of the phone and swap it for a series of modules such as a dedicated camera grip that includes physical camera buttons such as a zoom wheel. Other modules will include audio speakers and a virtual reality module. The Moto Z range (currently up to Moto Z4, released in 2019) uses Moto Mods, upgrades that can be magnetically attached. Upgrades include 5G, speaker improvements, a Polaroid printer, projector and a 360 camera for filming VR. However, as of July 2020, Motorola have announced that they will be discontinuing their modular smartphone.
Fairphone is a modular phone company popular among ethical consumers, with the Fairphone 3 released in 2019. As well as being designed to reduce waste Fairphone also pay the staff working throughout their supply chain the local living wage and their phones are made without conflict minerals, which are minerals such as gold, tin and tungsten extracted in conflict zones where profits are used to continue violence. Fairphone 3 has received positive reviews and in terms of power it's comparable with other modern smartphones, with 64Gb storage, 4GB RAM
Why haven't modular phones taken off?
You might be wondering what happened to modular phones, in fact you might even be wondering why modular phones failed as they were quite a hot topic in 2015-2016 but things have been a bit quiet since then, and several modular phone projects are now defunct (such as Google Ara, the Essential Phone and Phonebloks). Technology limitations are one issue, and there are still a lot of questions around how successful they would actually be at reducing e-waste, with one concern raised being that people might feel like they have to upgrade different components quite regularly and throwing away their old components, as well as a question of price and how much people would be willing to pay for modules.
Modular phones have so far remained a bit of a niche area, and perhaps it is the wider ethical aspects of Fairphone, and the ethos of the company, that have seen it succeed where others have failed. Nevertheless, any future modular phones have will depend on whether there is a market for them among consumers. And while modest sales might be enough for a small, specialist company like Fairphone perhaps isn't enough to tempt the big tech manufacturers into the R&D needed to bring a new modular phone to market. After all, Lenovo announced over a million Moto Zs sold in 2016, and continued to release regular updates to the Z range but, as of July 2020, have now said they are discontinuing the range in favour of more conventional phones. The much anticipated Google Ara was officially cancelled in 2016, after fours years of development.
Clearly there is interest in developing modular phones, but it's currently looking unlikely they will become a mainstream way of buying phones in the foreseeable future, but never say never - we don't know what technological advances might change the mobile phone market in years to come.