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article imageFacebook might be reviving Google's failed modular smartphone

By James Walker     Jul 21, 2017 in Technology
Facebook appears to be secretly working on a modular smartphone that could be akin to Google's failed Project Ara experiment. The company has filed a patent for a "modular electromechanical device" that would offer replaceable hardware.
The patent filing was published earlier this week and noticed yesterday by Business Insider. It describes a modular mobile device that would include telephony capabilities, a touchscreen, speaker and microphone and support for connectivity sensors such as GPS.
The project is under development at Building 8, Facebook's highly secretive experimental lab. It could be just coincidence but Building 8 is also where several of Google's Project Ara team have ended up. Some of Ara's key participants now work at Facebook's hardware division, signalling the company is trying to pull off what Google never quite achieved.
For years, Project Ara was anticipated as the future of smartphones. The ambitious modular concept would have allowed you to customise the hardware of your phone and swap out core components at will. The idea was encumbered by delays and setbacks and ended up being quietly abandoned last year without ever receiving a public launch.
As with any patent filing, it's unclear whether Facebook really is working on modular hardware. The presence of several Ara members within Building 8 signals the modular smartphone concept could be making a comeback though. Facebook's patent cites several benefits of the idea as compared to traditional devices.
In particular, the company wants to offer an alternative to the "expensive and wasteful" tech products of today. The filing expresses frustration on the behalf of consumers at short product lifecycles. It also notes that the hardware inside most "obsolete" devices is still fully functioning. A smartphone's "end-of-life" is typically defined as when it stops receiving software updates, not when its components start to malfunction.
"Typically, the hardware components included in the consumer electronics that are considered 'outdated' are still useable," the patent reads. "However, the hardware components can no longer be re-used since consumer electronics are designed as closed systems. From a consumer perspective, the life cycle of conventional consumer electronics is expensive and wasteful."
If modular smartphones ever see the limelight, you'd theoretically be able to choose which parts of your phone should be high-end. If you're on a tight budget but want a fast processor, you could opt for a less competent camera and a smaller battery. Conversely, an avid photographer might include a mid-range processor but a better camera and more storage.
There's no firm indication yet that Facebook is working on reviving the Ara technology. The patent filing demonstrates that modular hardware still has an appeal inside Silicon Valley though, suggesting it could one day make a reappearance.
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