The smartphone industry may be one of the most wasteful industries we’ve ever created.
But the times of tossing away a $700 smartphone after just 2.5 years of use may be over: 2016 will be the year we finally see upgradable phones.
It started with LG’s launch of the modular G5. Now, as that phone grows in popularity and media attention, many industry analysts believe that 2016 (or possibly 2017) will be the year that modular, upgradeable smartphones finally go mainstream.
The Upgradeable LG G5
The LG G5 comes with an innovative feature: you can plug in and remove hardware modules that add extra functionality to your phone.
Don’t want to pay to upgrade to a brand new phone? Just slot in a new hardware module to enjoy new features.
Right now, the LG G5 doesn’t actually get upgraded in terms of raw hardware performance with the new hardware modules.
Instead, there are just two modules at launch, including:
-One adding hardware camera buttons for zoom, shutter, and video recording
-The other adding high-quality audio playback to offer an enhanced music experience
Changing modules is as easy as pressing a button on the lower side of the phone and then pulling out the bottom part of the handset – similar to the way in which you would remove a battery case.
Then, you slide out the battery and snap the module into the battery before reinserting it into the device.
Google’s Project Ara is Next
The LG G5 is a big step towards offering upgradeable smartphones in the future. But it’s not quite what people envision when they hear the words “upgradeable smartphone”.
Google’s Project Ara is a prototype phone that brings us closer to that goal.
The phone is basically just an exoskeleton case with a screen attached. Then, you can attach whatever processor, memory, battery, camera module, and other hardware you like into the phone.
The advantages are obvious: instead of paying for an entirely new phone just because you want a new camera, you can pay $150 for a new camera module.
Desktop PCs have been upgradeable in this fashion for years and we don’t think about it. Why has it taken so long for the smartphone industry to figure it out?
“In the past, modular has never worked,” Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, said in a statement to PC World. “Yet we are moving to a world where you will definitely have different components through connected accessories that will give you a modular experience to some extent.”
One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that modules and can snap and fit into the phone securely. Over the years, it’s easy for dirt and grime to sneak their way into the ports and into the modules.
Another engineering problem is the plastic casing itself: it still needs to be thin and smartphone-like, but it also needs to be built to handle all sorts of different modules.
Google hasn’t yet stated when Project Ara will begin trial testing. Google canceled its plans to begin testing Ara in Puerto Rico last year because it was forced to do a “recalculation”.
The opportunity is there for one brave smartphone maker. Who knows? Maybe in the future, we’ll hold onto our smartphones for four years before throwing them into a desk drawer. What a future that could be.