Facebook’s secretive hardware division is exploring modular smartphones

The former head of Google’s Project Ara, a high-profile modular smartphone concept pictured above, now leads Facebook’s Building 8 division.
Photo: Google

Facebook’s Building 8, the secretive skunkworks division led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan, is looking into developing modular smartphones, according to a report from Business Insider.

The company filed for a patent, published today, that details a “modular electromagnetic device” that would alleviate the issue of “expensive and wasteful” conventional electronics that consumers purchase and then dispose of when they’re inevitably outdated in a couple of years. The patent describes both a phone and a smart speaker as potential product categories.

Photo: Facebook

It’s unclear to what extent Facebook is working on a concrete hardware project that will see the light of day, but there are a number of signs that point to Building 8’s increasing interest in modular devices. For one, Dugan, as the head of Building 8, has a history with modular smartphones: she was previously in charge of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, which developed a modular phone called Project Ara. That product got all the way to a pilot test of the hardware in Puerto Rico before Google shuttered the project last fall.

Earlier in the year, Dugan joined Facebook to lead Building 8, where she’s pursuing a number of other ambitious hardware concepts. Those far-off ideas even include brain-computer interfaces that allow people to type with their thoughts and even hear through their skin. The division’s head of new product introduction, Bernard Richardson, is also formerly of Amazon’s Echo speaker, giving Building 8 some high-profile consumer hardware expertise.

Business Insider reports that a number of former Project Ara team members now work for Building 8 at Facebook. The company also confirmed to BI that the technology described in the patent was developed primarily by former members of the startup Nascent Objects, a company focusing on modular electronics that Facebook acquired last September.

Comments

I seriously don’t understand how people at tech companies – presumably some of the smarted people in consumer tech – keep trying to make this bad idea work.

What if instead of gimmick modules, companies just make accessories that work with Lightning and USB-C? Instead of taking your phone apart, just pop some lightning module on and go to town?

Seems like a lot of work on something nobody even wants.

The concept has benefits for business models and especially for Facebook, if commercialized, allows them to enter the smartphone/device industry – diversifying their sources of revenue.

There are also benefits for users, but that all depends on how the devices are marketed. The original Phonebloks concept had terrible ideas for how it would benefit users – it just made hippies feel good… which doesn’t make a good sales pitch.

The concept has benefits for business models and especially for Facebook, if commercialized, allows them to enter the smartphone/device industry – diversifying their sources of revenue.

No it doesn’t. They can enter the smartphone industry anytime they want to – there are dozens of commodity maker who will churn them out for them. their problem will be an operating system that isn’t tied to their biggest competitor.,. Building an expensive, wasteful modular phone is dumb.

There are also benefits for users,

Such as? A bigger, more expensive, less reliable phone?

They tried to enter the smartphone industry with HTC’s help. That failed spectacularly. If they want to do it again, they’ll need something that can stand out. They have the option to use Android without using Google services, replacing those with their own (which they have versions of already – just not powerful ones). If they want to build their own OS (I’m not saying that’s a good idea), they did have a pseudo App Store before with their Facebook games and what not, so there is a very slim possibility (once again, probably not a great idea though).

I’m not saying the modular concept is good, I’m saying it’s not all bad. And if they feel like they must enter the market, then this would be a viable option.

Benefits for users? Less expensive upgrade cycles, more up-to-date components, greater integrated utility (think 3rd party iPhone lense attachments without a bulky case or external clips), personalization & choice

Less expensive upgrade cycles

I fail to see how it will be any less expensive in the long run. Assuming you keep upgrading parts ever so often, the money you spend on parts won’t be much less than the cost of flipping your phone every 2 years.

Less expensive since it’s a cost over time rather than singular purchase (which is why carriers and even Apple are doing payment plans). In this case, the user has the added choice of which parts to purchase – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on what’s important to you (but if it’s a bad thing, simply buy a regular, non-modular phone).

You might want some new features, that do require some new hardware, but not the entire phone (i.e. 3D Touch screen). So rather than replacing the whole shebang, you just get the screen.

Less expensive also, because if you break a specific part, you can replace that one part (i.e. screen) rather than taking the whole phone in for repairs or replacement.

And I just want to say, in case that wasn’t clear, the "less wasteful" concept was super dumb. But modularity has other benefits that those fools at Phonebloks never considered (mostly cause the benefits are the opposite of less wasteful)

Yeah, the whole concept that this is somehow less wasteful is so wrong. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

Well they talk about smart speakers. Think about bluetooth speakers with sealed batteries – they’re basically disposable. First those need replaceable batteries. Period.

Secondly, if there was a standard module to replace the processor & memory of a smart speaker – that’d be great. I’m not thinking Echo Dots, but big home speakers. My home speakers are 15 years old, and I’m not replacing them ever, but I wish they were smart, and they’d need to be upgradeable and a company committing to sticking to it.

I suppose you could use something like a Chromecast Audio for your speakers?

I agree when it comes to phones. Speakers/TVs/other longer-term tech investments, on the other hand… it starts to make more sense.

When something "wants" to be pocket sized and extremely tightly integrated and oh doesn’t separate into 9 different parts that roll around when you drop it , it’s a terrible idea. It’s giving up way too much just to have swappable parts that most people will never swap through the life of the device.

Sure, if something is the size of a Desktop PC, which is already modular, that could work (though arguably, for a TV, the idea is to just use a replaceable external box for any kind of brains and forget about the sub-standard built in "computer" that will be obsolete in a year).

Good point with the TV – I like my Roku and don’t much care for built-in solutions.

Not sure that’s what Facebook is getting at. Looking at the article, it sounds like FB is aiming for a lower-cost way to offer updated specs, piece-by-piece, rather than asking consumers to drop $800 on a new phone every year. What you’re suggesting is additive accessories. But if what I’m saying is the case then the price-point of new hardware modules needs to stay below (AT LEAST) a quarter of the average cost of a high-end smartphone. If that average is somewhere between $700-$900, then that means that most people who finance their devices and upgrade every year end up dropping between $350-$450 a year. If updated processor and camera modules are released, for example, and it costs a user more than between maybe $200, total, then it’s not a very efficient proof of concept. At that point, another couple hundred gets you a whole new device with a new display, maybe updated RAM or sensors, a new chassis to replace your janky one, etc. Whether its proprietary modular connections for accessories (bad) or a "cheaper" way to update your phone (probs a lie), the modular idea needs to stop. And people need to quit making the idea out to produce less waste.

With smartphones modularity has a lot of compromises, such as a bulkier phone, loss of dust and water resistance and the difficulty in standardising pin layout for SoCs etc.

Modularity, does however make a lot of sense for deices like smart TVs and smart speakers. TVs are a longer term investment than a smartphone, the displays will still be functional and considered good for years after purchase. However, the smart aspect of smart TVs (SoC, RAM etc) become outdated quickly, it would be better for the TV to be dumb and then being able to add on the smart TV ‘module’. This same logic could also be applied to speakers, since the speaker aspect would good for years, but the smart aspect would be replaced when the tech becomes outdated.

Yeah, basically set top boxes like Roku or the AppleTV. But companies like Samsung don’t want to just sell a dumb 50+" monitor, they feel compelled to "differentiate"….sigh…

I wonder how successful a company might be if they just straight up sold a monitor with GPU, HDMI port, speakers, and that’s it.

It was stupid when Googel looked at it and its still stupid now.
Modularity is much more wasteful than integration will ever be.

But the Moto way is proper good.

No to mention that the idea of "modularity" sounds like a contradiction to me when you will essentially be locked into whatever standard or ecosystem said company spits out. Do you really think the various companies like Moto, Google, Facebook or Essential are going to cooperate to release a unified standard? They are just going to each release their own standards, and fragment the market further.

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