Never Wait in Line at the Apple Store Again

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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07:  Google's modular phone (Project Ara) at Engadget Expand New York 2014 at Javits Center on November 7, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Engadget Expand)
Google's Project Ara phone looks like any other from the front ... Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Since 2007, when the first iPhone arrived, tech companies have mastered planned obsolescence. Apple releases a new smartphone roughly every 12 months. Same goes for Samsung. Netbooks, tablets, phablets, and phones — each professing to be faster, smarter, or better — are regularly unleashed on the world to try to make their predecessors look old.

There’s no better illustration of this culture of disposability than the world’s growing volume of e-waste, which is expected to reach 93.5 million tons next year. (Only a fraction of that is recycled.) But a small group of companies, including Google, think they might have a solution to this problem — and it's yet another gadget.

A new category of modular, easily upgraded devices is set to emerge over the next year. Like early PCs, these phones and laptops are made to be taken apart and repaired, and they include an “anti-smartphone” from a Berkeley start-up, a netbook made for One Laptop per Child, and several Finnish smartphones. The most eagerly anticipated, though, is Google’s Project Ara.

Later this year, Google will begin selling Spiral 2, its Project Ara prototype, out of food trucks in Puerto Rico. From the front, the phone looks similar to the one in your pocket, but the back is unlike any you’ve seen.

But from the back, Project Ara is unlike other smartphones. Photo: Bryan Bedder/2014 Getty Images

The metal frame has slots for eight modules, which include the phone’s battery, camera, and memory. If your speaker module breaks or your memory module stops working, you can replace them without replacing the whole phone. Don’t like the photos your Spiral 2’s camera takes? Just buy a new module and keep the phone.

If Project Ara sounds familiar, that’s because it’s strikingly similar to a concept that went viral in 2013. Called Phonebloks, Dave Hakkens’s idea was to make a modular smartphone that snapped together like Legos and dramatically reduced waste. And in a sense, the Spiral 2 is the manifestation of his idea. A little more than a month after posting his concept on YouTube, Hakkens partnered with Motorola, which was then owned by Google and already working on Project Ara, to collaborate on the modular-phone concept.

Several smaller companies are working on similar, if slightly less ambitious projects. Finland’s Vsenn is building a modular phone that emphasizes security, while Circular Devices, another Finnish project, is focused on sustainability with the PuzzlePhone. In Berkeley, Monohm has been developing the Runcible, an “anti-smartphone” that looks like a wooden doorknob. The pared-down device, unveiled earlier this month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, is meant to “create a more civilized relationship with your Digital Life” — no beeps, vibrations, or other distractions from the real world. Its creators imagine it as an “heirloom” that’s upgraded and passed down from generation to generation; its design, similar to a pocket watch, reflects that.

Phones aren’t the only devices going modular, either. One Laptop per Child’s Australian partner, One Education, recently announced the XO-infinity, a low-cost laptop with five modules that allow customization based on a child’s needs, along with easy repairs. The approach is similar for the Click-ARM One tablet from Spain’s ImasD, which ships with four modules for connectivity, storage, processing, and a screen.

It's fair to ask whether these new gadgets are actually solving the waste problem — what happens to all those old modules? If users move on from one to the next more frequently than they'd upgrade a whole phone, it won’t take long to produce the same amount of trash. Naturally, there’s a concept to solve this problem, too. Circular Devices, the Finnish company building the PuzzlePhone, wants to turn old modules into a supercomputer.