Just enough technology

When it comes to purchasing pieces of technology, my philosophy is to choose the product that provides just enough capability. The laptop my parents bought for me in college was a netbook—I could have asked for something with a larger screen, or a more powerful processor, or a more generous hard disk, but I knew that school work rarely asked more of computers than basic word processing. When tablets became popular and the iPad mini came out, I still chose to get the Nexus 7, which was a lesser package in perhaps all aspects except two, where it mattered for me: price and display quality (should be of high resolution and color accuracy).

Yet when I was presented the opportunity to choose just about any phone I could have (as a gift), I swallowed all semblances of consumerist guilt and picked the glamorous iPhone. I rationalized it by thinking, hopefully objectively, that it truly was the best-in-class in the product attributes I cared about.

In particular, I was enchanted by the device’s camera module. Until I had the phone, I had stubbornly kept on using a sturdy six-year-old Sony digicam, and I did not mind that it was not ‘cool’, so long as I was able to take ‘proper’ photos. Little did I know that technology had advanced faster than I thought, and in six years’ time a tiny camera module in the corner of a slim, shiny block of a phone had already outclassed a dedicated device more than twice its size.

A year later, as I snap photos of mundane objects (a habit the pocketable camera phone is prone to promote), I have not forgotten how expensive my device is. The defining feature of the contemporary smartphone is convergence. It offers a powerful set of components in a tightly-integrated body; unfortunately, like with living organisms, the decay of any vital organ can lead to the death of the rest of the smartphone. Bloated battery? Broken screen? Water-soaked case? Any of these crucial diseases can swiftly suck the useful life out of my dear device. (This is ironically more applicable for the more expensive smartphone models, as those are the ones that tend to be built in more compact shells and therefore less serviceable. What a waste!)

Fortunately, these artificial creations do not have to be as fragile as biotic systems can be. Enter the concept of the modular smartphone, which, unlike its traditional contemporaries, can be built then rebuilt, altered, transformed, and reconfigured using a collection of interchangeable components. The vision is of a phone, for example, with a camera module that can be swapped for a booster battery as the need arises. The same phone’s antennas can then be exchanged for another more compatible with a different country when roaming. Or exchanged for a GPS unit, or any instrument and sensor one might fancy, indeed. It makes for—to stretch the biology metaphor—a Frankenstein of a device.

The only real drawback for the modular smartphone is that it remains largely just a concept at this point. The most promising designs so far, from Google’s Project Ara, is still at the prototype stage. Yet I wish the project all the best, and fully hope that it will be developed into a viable product suite, and become a disruptive new category in the industry, to use Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzword. Even if it will never be as svelte as the currently available crop of flagship phones, I would not mind—the important thing is to have just the right pieces of technology.


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