Opinion: Modularity needed in all electronics devices

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Opinion - Richmond (VA) - Imagine a world where you could go down to the local cell phone store and choose the components you want inside your new phone. First you buy a sturdy frame with the right size and shape to support the options you want. Add your favorite resolution and type of screen. Next, buy the cell phone engine itself, one which works on any network you choose (cell phone networks are just services then). Do you need 3G? 4G? Maybe extra long battery life? What about special features that aren’t offered in traditional phones? WiFi? HD broadcast abilities? Router abilities? Maybe you want the ability to plug it into a USB port and have it also store up to 1GB of data? Modularity would make it all possible through innovation. Plus, it would bring prices down on the total cost of ownership.





Standardization



The first thing that would be required is standardization. The individual components would have to have packaging options that allow each add-on component to lock into place somehow, either by snapping them in place or by screws which hold them against their connector under force.

The standard would have to work for every type of component that could be developed. Now, this doesn‘t limit innovation to only those components which have been envisioned, but they would have to interface with the rest of the device via the standards.



Once those standards are defined and agreed upon, every manufacturer would simply make whatever happens on the inside of each plug-in component they offer do whatever it is they want. This would foster competition between competing products.

People would be buying XYZ’s part over ABC’s part (both of which do the same function) because of some reason. It might be faster, have more features, uses more colors, it costs less, or whatever other factor there is for that component. The market would sort it out.



By building the basic components around this standardization, every one of them could also be upgraded without getting rid of anything else. Need to move from 3G to 3.5G? One module gets replaced everything else stays the same. Also, suppose you’re cash strapped and can only buy low-end modules today. Over time, you could upgrade them one by one until you have the whole phone just as you like it.



And it’s not just about phones. Every piece of electronic equipment could be designed this way.





Notebooks, PCs, game consoles, everything



Modularity knows know bounds. For notebooks, a consumer would buy a sturdy frame, decide what “engine” they want in it (what motherboard with which features, or what motherboard with expansion slots to which custom features can be added by the consumer). On top of that basic frame (which might be a particular size with a touch-screen that swivels via the standard mount from a notebook to a touchpad), add whatever type of keyboard/mouse is desired, as these also plug in.

All of these parts are designed to carry out their specific function(s), and all operate together within the standards through the base device which allow for a specific range of abilities based on whatever is plugged into it.



For PCs it would be even easier. Rather than having fully integrated motherboards, simply have motherboards with sockets in them to which individual components are attached. And for game consoles, suppose you want to add more memory for greater detail on games. Or if you want more parallel processors for more realistic physics actions, just plug in another CPU or GPU.



All of these features could be included based on plug-in modules which expand the base abilities of the standard device.





Increasing innovation



Such modular designs would remove the expensive validation requirements of the overall system, and would instead limit the validation to single components. So long as each one operates within standards, all of it will work and work brilliantly.

Because the entire thing doesn’t have to be created as a solid unit, and because each part can be directly sold to the public (rather than via distribution channels to other manufacturers as many of these integrated component makers do today), that means larger profit potentials for many companies, and lower costs for consumers.





Conclusion



Competition breeds innovation. And in today’s society where our choices are really very limited in what we can get (limited often by the package we must buy), such an environment would be very welcomed. The ability to choose would again become our right.



The question is … do users care enough to demand this type of innovation? Or are we simply content to buy whatever it is that’s thrown our way?



So far, it seems to be the latter. I, for one, would like to see that change.





The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.