Written by Nick Heer.

Modular Smartphone Dreams and Practical Compromises

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

What would a smartphone look like if it could last for 10 years?

It’s a question that most of us have not had the luxury of pondering. That’s because many smartphones are designed to be replaced every two or three years. And Apple, Samsung and other handset makers unveil new models — along with big marketing campaigns — each year, encouraging us to upgrade.

It has become something of a September tradition for Chen to publish an article, tied to the launch of new iPhones, questioning whether people should really buy the latest smartphone models. “You can always just use flash”, the “most incremental update ever”, and so on.

But this seems like a genuinely good question worth pondering — what if smartphones were designed in a more modular fashion?

If a smartphone were designed to last a decade, it would probably be made so that we could simply open it up to replace a part like a depleted battery or a cracked screen. Many of its components would be able to be upgraded — if you wanted a better camera, you could just swap out the old one for a newer, more powerful one. You could also download software updates from the phone’s maker indefinitely.

Chen acknowledges smartphone makers get partway to this imagined decade lifespan by providing software updates for several years — five, in the case of an iPhone. But he was not impressed by how difficult he found his iPhone self-repair process:

When I took the Apple device apart during a previous test, it involved removing the proprietary screws with a special screwdriver and melting the glue that held the case together. To remove the battery, I had to use tweezers to yank on the tiny strips of glue underneath it. Even though I eventually succeeded in replacing the battery, I broke the iPhone’s screen in the process — and a replacement display cost about $300.

What Chen does not say here is that he broke the display because he did not follow the repair instructions by failing to remove screws securing the display to the case. His complaint about the adhesive on the edges of the display also rings hollow because it creates a seal against water and dust, rated to IP-68.

For contrast, Chen holds up the Fairphone 4, which comes with a screwdriver to encourage self-repair. The Fairphone company also sells spare parts. This is where the article begins to fall apart.

Remember how Chen fantasized about a way to upgrade just the camera module, for example, to a newer and better component without having to change the entire phone? Even the Fairphone does not support such an arrangement. A rear camera assembly for the Fairphone 4 is incompatible with the company’s previous three models. It is the same story for the front-facing camera, display, and all the rest of the parts the company sells.

Fairphone did release an updated Fairphone 2 camera module permitting owners of that device to get a better camera without changing their entire device. But that was shipped less than two years after the Fairphone 2’s release and I cannot find a more recent example of the company doing something similar.

That makes sense. Technology products are increasingly designed as singular units instead of collections of discrete components. Apple has arguably been a trendsetter, but most others have followed. And I am not a knee-jerk defender of this practice; I like my AirPods but I think it is ridiculous to trash perfectly good speakers and audio components because the battery no longer holds a charge. I care about this stuff too.

But the idea of making a shell into which a mix-and-match arrangement of components can be placed is a throwback to an era of tower PCs and driver incompatibilities. The apparent delight of this modular fantasy is belied by the multiple failed attempts at making it reality: remember Phonebloks, Project Ara, the Essential, and Moto Mods?

I would not go so far as to predict there will never be a successful modular phone. But there are real compromises to that approach. Remember how the gasket on Chen’s iPhone 12 was rated to IP-68, which means it can be fullly immersion in water? The Fairphone 4 is only rated to IP-54, allowing it to be splashed by water but not immersed in it. The easier repairability of the Fairphone seems to come at a cost to durability. I think that is a fine trade-off to make, but I do not think it is fair to directly compare the repair experience for each without mentioning this compromise. These measures seemingly necessary for waterproofing are not evidence of a deliberate effort to create products that, in Chen’s words, “become harder to repair and adding features that hasten obsolescence”.

I do not think Chen truly answered the kinds of questions he posed at the beginning of this Times story. What if smartphones lasted a decade? What if, indeed. I think most of us would love if we could just swap out the parts that failed, get ourselves a better camera every year without changing anything else, and hang onto the same well-weathered shell for ten full years. But it is worth pondering why this has not yet been done with a meaningful level of success, and I do not think it can be blamed solely on capitalist incentives.