The designers of mobile phones have become fixated on the black rectangle, with almost identical handsets emerging at every trade show and product launch. This may be about to change, however, as a number of designers attempt to create devices that can bend, fold and change — “morph” — or be customised by changing or adding different modules.
In June, Chinese technology group Lenovo gave a taste of the future with the unveiling of two prototype devices: CPlus, a bendable phone that wraps around the wrist, and Folio, a tablet with a screen that folds in half to become the size of a smartphone. Both are still some way away from going on sale.
“We expect that we’ll need to further refine and enhance the technology before these concept devices are ready for market,” says Daryl Cromer, Lenovo’s vice-president of research and technology.
Cubimorph, a prototype phone created by researchers at the universities of Bristol, Lancaster and Sussex in the UK and Purdue in the US, takes this idea further. Their phone is a set of 16 cubes that can be reconfigured in almost any shape, from a cube to a long thin line.
“When I look at phones at the moment I see bricks,” says Anne Roudaut, lecturer at Bristol University’s computer science department. “They don’t seem organised around the way we handle things.”
The Cubimorph, she says, might in the future be able to reconfigure itself automatically — such as by turning into a game console or going flat when you need a display screen.
But this technology is at least 10 or 15 years away from being available, she says, and at the moment such a phone would be prohibitively expensive to make. The motors that power the cubes cost about £500 and 32 of them are needed for the prototype Ms Roudaut and her team created. Some technical problems need to be resolved as well, such as how to allow the device to reconfigure safely while in a user’s hand without trapping their fingers.
But some modular phones are coming to market in a modest way. South Korean LG’s G5 phone and Lenovo’s Moto Z, for example, allow users to attach extra features such as a camera, camcorder or speakers. But these devices have so far had a limited impact, says Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, a technology research company. “Consumers really loved the idea when it was launched. But in reality remembering to take along all the different attachments you need is difficult.”
More ambitiously, Google has been working on Project Ara, a phone in which components can be removed and swapped. Originally this was to include crucial elements such as the central processing unit (the part of the phone that controls and executes operations), display and battery, but more recently plans have been scaled back so that it is mainly peripheral functions such as the camera and speakers that can be changed. Google has said these devices could be on sale by next year.
Some mobile phone start-ups are exploring more extreme forms of modularity. PuzzlePhone, based in Finland, is building a phone in which the display, processor and battery can all be replaced. Founder Alejandro Santacreu, came up with the idea after becoming frustrated with the difficulties of trying to have his Apple iPhone repaired.
“Fifteen years ago you would change the smartphone battery yourself,” he says. “But now mobile companies have moved towards gluing everything together so that they cannot be easily repaired.”
Limited repair options are increasingly becoming a concern for mobile phone owners, to the point that four states in the US — Minnesota, Nebraska, Massachusetts and New York — have proposed legislation to make it easier for devices to be repaired. Tech companies such as Apple have lobbied against these moves, however, and the New York effort to introduce a “right to repair” has been dropped.
Mr Santacreu, who has raised €1.4m in funding from a combination of EU grants and angel investors, says that a phone that is easy to repair and upgrade would be a more sustainable choice, less likely to end up in a landfill site in short time.
“The mobile phone industry is guilty of adding to the great pile of crap in our disposable culture,” he says. “PuzzlePhone gives us the option to not take part in that culture.” The first of its phones, some of which are expected to cost more than €700, are expected to go on sale in the final quarter of this year.
Amsterdam-based start-up Fairphone is even more explicit in saying that modularity is an eco-friendly choice. The company started by creating phones that used fewer minerals that came from conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has designed a phone that is easy for customers to upgrade and repair. The battery is replaceable and the screen unclips easily so that, if it is cracked, it can be replaced — at the cost of about €85 — even by a non-expert.
“We want to extend the lifespan of the phone. If you can replace the electro-mechanical components, such as the camera or speakers, when they begin to wear out,” says Miquel Ballester, co-founder of Fairphone. “You can extend the life from two years to around five.”
The company has found a small but dedicated niche market and expects to sell about 140,000 handsets this year. However, Mr Wood says it is unlikely that this kind of modularity would be adopted by the mainstream manufacturers.
“It is just not the way the market works,” Mr Wood says. “Making something as intrinsic to the device as a repairable screen isn’t going to happen. But replaceable batteries are the low-hanging fruit, that could be coming.”