Bit by Bit: Building smartphones, block by block

By: | Updated: November 21, 2014 8:45 AM

The smartphones of the future will be build for the customer and maybe even by the customer

The phone is the most personal of all your devices and hence the urge to customise it according to your needs and personality is much more. As the market gets proliferated by hundreds of brands and thousands of devices, this thirst to personalise could end up as being the biggest driver for smartphone innovation in the coming years.

Most of us already personalise these little computers in our pockets by downloading the apps we need, changing the setting and wallpapers to match our character and by adding accessories that go with our style. But these are all external customisation. A couple of projects springing up across the world are exploring the possibility of giving users the ability to customise hardware. And spearheading the so-called modular phone movement is Google, with its Project Ara.

Put simply, this is the “hardware version of Android” where a user buys a smartphone frame from Google and adds only the modules that he wants. Any module can go anywhere, so you could theoretically have a phone that has just a screen, processor, antenna and batteries. You can hot swap batteries like you would do with your TV remote, or add multiple camera modules… there is no end to the combinations this can throw up. One thing that is certain is that once Project Ara goes mass, there will be no two persons with the same phone. Project head Paul Eremenko says we are a couple of years away from being able to buy Project Ara phones or modules, though the first versions could be out as early as next year. The success of the project will depend largely on the cost and how the developers of the modules are able to attain the scale to keep it low.
Chinese telecom major ZTE has already showcased its modular phone concept called the Eco-Mobius. While at the moment the two projects are working on completely different standards, if the concept gathers steam there is the possibility of interoperability between ecosystems.

The closest you can get to a Project Ara-like device at the moment is a new phone from Lenovo, called Vibe X2. This so-called “layered phone” lets you add an extra battery layer in the rear, significantly increasing the weight and size of the device, but doubling the power back up. There is even a speaker layer which the company has worked on in collaboration with JBL. And we believe there could be more layers in the offing soon.

Anuj Sharma, the product and marketing head for smartphones at Lenovo India, says most of the features on this phone are based on customer feedback—especially from the developing markets, where Lenovo hopes to make a significant impact. Incidentally, Lenovo is a new players in the smartphone market, but is already the third-largest vendor in India following its acquisition of Motorola. Considering that Motorola was the original force behind modular phones, don’t be surprised if Lenovo goes down this path for most smartphones designs in the future.

Closer home, Xolo, the arm of Indian manufacturer Lava International that focuses on premium devices, has been working on a Android-based operating system of its own, called Hive. Already available on the XOLO 8X-1000, this OS takes real-time feedback from users and implements them on the OS with regular updates. The phone offers customisations that have been thought over for the Indian audience and is constantly listening to the user and evolving in the process. Co-founder and director Vishal Sehgal says the company is targeting the evolved user at the moment and is happy enough with the feedback to start rolling the OS to other devices. “Hardware can be replicated very quickly these days, often in a matter of weeks.

Hence, we believe software will be the big differentiator and will play a larger role,” adds business head Sunil Raina. He says it will be the software that provides the stickiness for brands as customers will get used to a certain kind of experience.

As we get more and more dependent on our smartphones, you will see the devices adapting to the user in multiple ways. Yes, the smartphone revolution is well and truly here, but the smartphone evolution has just begun.

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