It is often a popular belief that technology cannot be both elegant and functional; both streamlined and repairable. However, we are beginning to see a shift towards modularity that should be welcomed by the public. Modularity can reduce costs when things break because components are more easily replaceable – meaning the consumer can do it themselves. The idea of modularity goes beyond pragmatism, it gives power back to the consumer where it had once deserted it for the sake of convoluted complexity and performance.
This trend is even prevalent within science, where microplate readers (equipment that detects light photons emitted by samples) are now modular. A multi-mode plate reader from BMG labtech is focusing on modularity in order to make them upgradeable. This significantly increases the lifespan of the machine. As new future requirements change, there’s more potential to adapt to them. Not only this, but it means laboratories only need to purchase what they want, as modularity can mean being very direct with your needs.
The story is the same for the new laptop created by Framework. They have designed a sleek, lightweight laptop that is entirely customizable and modular. Customers are often concerned about planned obsolescence surrounding laptops because they’re difficult to fix and often only last between 5 and 10 years. It would be very difficult for a layman to get inside the MacBook and make adjustments, for example.
However, the Framework laptop isn’t just easy to get into and to replace components, even the I/O is modular. Thunderbolt USB-C has enough bandwidth to facilitate and connect almost any component (even a high-performance GPU). Almost any I/O you can think of, whether it’s HDMI, DP, MicroSD, or USB-A you want, the port expansion cards can be chosen for $9 each. Given that ram, the battery, and storage are all easily replaceable, it’s difficult to see this laptop becoming obsolete for a very long time.
Around five years ago, Google was gearing up to release their Project Ara smartphone – the first fully modular smartphone that would be shipped (in its non-augmented form) for $50. A display, frame, battery, and CPU would all arrive. The customer would then go online and purchase a faster CPU if they desired one, or a big battery, and so on.
Fast forward to 2021 and Project Ara no longer exists, and not one phone was sold. The project was abandoned before they ever fully released, with speculation that it wasn’t even feasible to provide such as a phone, hence why no prototype was made.
They suffered production and development setbacks, but ultimately the issue was a fundamental one: the framework infrastructure used to facilitate modularity made the phone 25% larger, heavier, and less powerful. Whilst technophiles will often state that they would rather have a thicker smartphone in order to get a better (and removable) battery, almost nobody is asking for a thicker smartphone for less performance.
So in this instance, the idea that a modular and replaceable piece of technology is mutually exclusive with elegance and efficiency is true – so why wasn’t it for the framework laptop? The truth is that the framework laptop still has a lot more space to maneuver, and components likely are taking up more space but it’s not noticeable because of laptops’ inevitably larger frames.
For smartphones to have the same solution, they will need a breakthrough component like the thunderbolt USB-C, only with a much smaller footprint. However, the larger things get, like a desktop PC, it is inevitable that we see more modularity.
It’s beginning to look like modularity is targeted to those who are tech geeks and work in a specialized field (like telemedicine), whilst slick design and integrated components are more suited to the average consumers. This isn’t what modularity is about, though, as it should appeal more to the average person – it’s just that they need to be initially aware of the advantages of its improved accessibility.
The Xbox Series X is very much a console aimed at the everyday layman, yet they took a big step forward towards modularity. The SSD is replaceable inside the Xbox, which is important for the console’s given their lack of initial storage space usually. Disassembling the console requires very few tools or electrical knowledge, and the screws are all standard-sized. All components are held together, meaning everything slides right out of the case in one go. But again, the downside of this modularity still somewhat exists given that the Xbox case is extremely industrial and functional looking – the cuboid’s shape lending itself to easier accessibility at the cost of slick aesthetics.
Science vs Consumerism
This perhaps rounds up where and why products decide to go more modular. In science, the buyer has a larger interest in improving the longevity of a product, along with customization. When it comes to consumer-level technology, price, aesthetics, and initial cost are important – making it hard to convey the value of modularity. Science will begin to see more and more modularity through the use of thunderbolt too, given its impressive bandwidth, making machinery and lab equipment replaceable and easier to fix for the average scientist. In fact, this becomes even more prevalent with the decentralization of science, given that more scientists are working remotely. Self-sufficiency is all the more important, and modularity is a quick way of getting there.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.