When desktops ruled, upgrading individual computer parts instead of buying a new machine was probably the closest users ever got to having a modular PC with interchangeable parts. But in today’s mobile-driven, disposable-tech world, the only way to upgrade a smartphone is to buy a new one.
The industry grew up with a different mindset both on the industrial and wireless modular side, said Horn. “Everything has been so handheld, consumer-focused, that it worked in that environment.”
But that disposable mentality does not work in today’s Internet of Things world, where “we are connecting all these different machines and having to communicate data. … It’s totally counter-intuitive,” he said.
The endless “churn-and-burn cycle,” is due to a number of factors, said spokesman Jonas Allen, Director of Marketing at the Green Electronics Council, in an interview.
“One of them is the hardware itself,” he said. “The devices are getting smaller and smaller and more and more complex. So everything really does relate to another component. So it’s challenging to create modular hardware.”
The other reason, he argued, are consumer trends.
“As long as we wanted the newest, greatest-looking device, it’s going to be hard for people to say ‘well, I’m okay just upgrading this one little widget,’” he said. “…. We don’t necessarily want that incremental upgrade. We want the next best, brightest piece of hardware.”
But it is not entirely the consumers’ fault. While customers have long demanded “really small, really compact, super-sexy products,” Allen said making those types of devices modular is hard because their marketing strategy speaks to the “other side of your brain.”
“It’s using the side that says ‘wow, that’s pretty. I want to have that product,’” he said. “So I think there’s shared opportunity there for improvement.”
The process becomes expensive when people “are forced to make the move and replace an entire piece of equipment instead of a module,” added Horn. Often, customers take their business elsewhere, thereby severing earlier relationships and losing a level of stability.
Applying modular design to wireless is more complicated – and expensive. In the wireless world, different devices have to interface with machines, using different frequency bands and different communication protocols.
“Every time you install some type of wireless connectivity, it interfaces with the machine. It costs a lot of money to do that,” Horn explained. “And you expect it to work. Any time you have to go back and replace it or touch it or change it, it’s very, very expensive. And so … you need that long-term stability instead.”
Horn believes that adopting a modular approach in wireless devices and computers can be done “in a way that makes sense.” Such a move, he argued, would cause “less hardware disruption, less trash and things to dispose of,” particularly on the industrial side of business, and would be “more stable and “user-friendly.”
“Someone will build the model that works and change everything,” he said. “And everybody else will have to follow suit … If it truly is very consumer-friendly and user-friendly and economical, which I believe it will be, then many others will follow.”
The process can be challenging, said Allen, though not impossible. There are opportunities where a modular approach can be beneficial with software and firmware that go out of date, for example, and even with hardware in seemingly-complicated devices like smartphones that are essentially composed of a display, a computer, and a frame.
“We look at mobile phones now and ‘phone’ … is almost a misnomer, ” he said. “We seldom use it [as a] phone, right? It’s a computer. It’s a Web browser. It’s a texting machine. And every now-and-then, it’s email and word processing. But at the end of the day, what these products are offering is not necessarily a computing device. It’s really a window to the cloud.”
As the industry continues to move processing, storage and various applications to remote servers on the cloud, Allen believes we will reach a point “where we won’t necessarily see that technology change so often from a device standpoint. It’s just how we view the information on the cloud.”
When processing is done in the cloud, smartphone processors will not need to be upgraded as often. “You’re not really dependent on that end-user device to do the processing,” said Allen. “So you can have a longer-living device. Really, the only thing that in that case you would want to change is maybe the display.”
There are already up to 1,000 companies tackling the issue of modularity in computing, including Google, Acer, Microsoft, Toshiba, Lenovo and Panasonic, to name a few. And Allen projects an increased push toward modularity as consumers and the tech industry look for sustainable products that use fewer resources.
“So as we look at the future of technology and the cloud and that mindset and those sensibilities, there is no question the future is greener,” said Allen.