Google Inc. (GOOG) has intrigued many with its Ara modular smartphone concept. Based on the Phonebloks project by designer Dave Hakkens, an official development path for Ara was confirmed earlier this year. In July Google announced it would ship Ara prototype hardware to 100 lucky public testers; the first of those units had already arrived by October. Still, as intriguing as this modular smartphone concept is, Ara -- a device with dozens of swappable pieces -- remains a ways far from market.
A startup from Espoo, Finland could actually beat Google to market with a slightly simpler concept. The company is gaining attention, in part, because Espoo is the town where Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) was founded. Unsurprisingly Puzzlephone's staff has more than a few former Nokia engineers who left the once dominant phonemaker during its Windows Phone decline.
Unlike Ara which has multiple finer-grained swappable parts like cameras, batteries, processors, memory, etc. packaged into blocks, the Finnish phonemaker Puzzlephone divides its device into three fundamental components:
- Body frame
- LCD display
- External modems and wireless chipsets
- System-on-a-chip (SoC) processor
- Camera module
Its device will initially use a forked version of Google's Android OS, but in the long run Puzzlephone expressed openness to the idea of using other forms of mobile Linux, such as Tizen, Ubuntu Mobile, and Firefox OS). Puzzlephone hopes to have its first devices ready by mid-2015, perhaps in several form factors.
Modular phones offer one clear advantage that harkens back to the early days of desktop computing -- upgradability. However, they trade thinness and weight to achieve that paradigm. The key question is whether customers will feel it's worth it to get a phone they can freshen, but whose form factor is less impressive than sleek purpose-built designs.
If modular phones prove to be more than just a novelty, than Puzzlephone looks well positioned to dominate this market as among its earliest entrants.
Sources: Puzzlephone [homepage], [YouTube]