Like stereos and computers, the cell phone is moving toward components. An Israeli company, Modu, on Thursday debuted the first modular mobile phone.
The ecosystem, as the company calls its approach, is sold in parts and assembled as needed. Its heart is a tiny phone reduced to its core functions and smallest size -- smaller than a credit card. It can be housed in a variety of "Modu jackets" or phone enclosures, and snapped together with "Modu mates," or compatible consumer electronics devices.
'Best of Breed'
Modu mates could include portable music players, digital photo frames, video displays or cameras. The company said this mix-and-match capability enables "best of breed functionality."
Modu sees this as the opportune time for cell-phone functions to become components. The problem with the hundreds of handsets available, said CEO and founder Dov Moran, is that "you can only have one at a time and you are usually tied to a long and expensive contract." Modu's solution, he said, allows the consumer to "change your phone without it costing a fortune."
Modu said it has lined up several mobile-network operators representing tens of millions of subscribers in several countries. These include Telecom Italia, BeeLine of Russia and Cellcom in Israel. It said it also has several consumer-electronics and media partners, including Blaupunkt, whose products include multimedia and navigation, and Universal Music Group, the world's largest music company.
The ability for consumers to change their phone several times a year without penalties could benefit the operators as well as consumers, providing the operators with more handsets, increased usage and less subscriber churn.
The time is right for a module device "that can change its personality," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with JupiterResearch. He noted some other vendors, such as Bug Labs, are showing similar approaches. Bug's products are expected to be out in March, and Sony Ericsson is also exploring modularity.
IDC's Chris Hazelton agrees that modularity for phones "is a very good idea." When markets near saturation, he noted, people become interested in various devices for various needs -- and cell phones have entered that stage. People want to change phones at least every 18 months, he said, but are currently prevented by early termination fees on contracts and the cost of new devices.
The key, Hazelton added, will be keeping the cost of several variations of a modular phone within the cost of one full-featured phone -- but each variation, such as the music phone, must work as well as, say, a regular music phone.
Modularity, Gartenberg added, "is going to be very important moving forward," and modularity is a familiar concept to Modu founder Moran. He was a co-founder of msystems, a maker of flash memory, and the inventor of the USB flash drive. He sold msystems to SanDisk for $1.6 billion in 2006.