By now, upgrading a smartphone has gotten fairly routine, so much so that it seems like consumers often do so simply out of habit. It’s a costly one, however, with consumers coughing up over $11 billon each year for a new shiny gadget. Much of these expenses are often hidden in carrier contracts.
The PuzzlePhone, developed by Finnish startup Circular Devices, is among a handful of bold concepts seeking to become a legitimate alternative to this viciously wasteful cycle. Similar to Google’s widely-publicized Project Ara, it’s designed to allow for certain parts to be interchangeable. For instance, fresh batteries can easily be swapped in and should the screen break, you can avoid costly repairs by simply buying a new one. But perhaps the biggest draw is that the phone, to some degree, would be future-proof.
“A smartphone with modular parts make a lot sense now that we’ve gotten to the point where a lot of the core functions have more or less stabilized,” says Circular Devices co-founder Alejandro Santacreu. “Screens are good enough and the same applies to megapixel cameras, so improvements will typical be progressive bumps to things like the processor speed and memory.”
On paper, the device is much simpler than the highly-customizable version Google has in the works. There are basically three parts: the brain (computing components), the heart (battery) and spine (display), which comes with dedicated compartments for both. While this limits the degree in which users are able to fiddle with their devices, the approach sidesteps the intricate challenge of uncoupling all the various functions — something that the Google team has been ironing out.
“What makes what they’re [Google] doing very complicated is that they’re cutting into pieces a system where 80 percent of the functionality is inside a single chip,” Santacreu explains. “Sure, geeks and developers who test things on different devices would love it, but it’s not compatible with what your everyday consumer actually cares about.”
“I mean who wakes up in the morning and says ‘I need a faster Bluetooth,'” he adds.
In some ways, it’s a bit surprising that established handset companies have shown little interest in testing out modular designs. Besides serving as an attractive selling point for those tired of spending on upgrades, the approach can also eliminate costly inefficiencies. One example Santacreu cites is the cumbersome custom integration of firmware for each new Android model, a process developers refer to as “recompiling.” Whereas easily installable operating systems such as Windows are easily installable and transferable on PCs, he estimates that custom-implementing Android can take up to two months. A modular system where the configuration of components are more or less standardized would eliminate much of the hassle, he says.
But for big players such as Samsung and Apple, any potential savings that come from introducing such a platform would be canceled out by the possibility of a far greater cost. Modularity, in essence, would open up proprietary technologies to more competition from outside firms known as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Apple, in recent years, has taken steps to discourage consumers from altering its products beyond the point of sale. Processors and even onboard RAM memory for MacBooks are soldered in a manner that prevents users from making their own modifications. Batteries, while replaceable, are serviced at certified repair centers and Apple Stores.
Santacreu is a bit of a radical in declaring that he’d be more than happy if third-party manufacturers ended up putting out a wide range of replacement options, ultimately crowding him out of that category. “Some people don’t need more power, but maybe they need a bigger screen. It’s up to them to invest not $600, but maybe just $150 into a new LCD, or $50 into a battery and use it until the next year without worries,” he says. “The overarching goal is giving people these kind of choices.”
He asserts that his prime directive is to cut back on waste and the inefficiency. The role he sees his company playing is to provide a standardized ecosystem, which is necessary to spur widespread adoption. Participating vendors would have the option of either paying a fee to be officially certified or should a part be reconfigured to the point where extensive recompiling of Android is needed, they can provide such a service. “We’re not gunning to be the next Apple or Samsung so I wouldn’t mind at all if independent companies started selling parts for the PuzzlePhone and didn’t bother to talk to us,” he says. “Where we fit in is we’re here to provide support.”
Since an injection of seed funding in September, the company has been busy assembling a prototype and hopes to release as commercial model by the end of the year. No suggested retail price has been set, but Santacreu says it wouldn’t be a stretch for the products to eventually reach a price point that’s competitive with other smartphones on the market, should the idea catch on. And even if the device retails for more out-of-pocket than a subsidized smartphone with comparable specs, users should expect to save money over the long term, he says.
“We understand our designs probably won’t endure forever, but we would be happy to provide something that can be of use for 5 to 10 years,” Santacreu says. “Everyone deserves a better lifespan from their devices than what they’re currently getting today.”