Why You *Can* Build a Smartphone.
In what was by far my most popular post of 2013, Why You Can’t Build A Smartphone, I explained why building a new smartphone platform was futile. Today, like any good author, I’m going completely contradict myself. Yes, it is possible to create a new smartphone platform. You just have to follow a few constraints.
Recent coverage of Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone made me think back to my webOS days.
Oh, we were so young and naive, thinking we could make a dent into the coming mobile platform duopoly (sorry MS). Palm, of course, had Handspring in it’s history. The Visor was the original modular mobile device with a Gameboy like swappable hardware port.
While at Palm (before we were HP) I pushed the idea of bringing back swappable hardware, though as more of a standard dock connector with kung-fu grip. Unfortunately it was infeasible when trying to compete in mass market carrier stores. The last thing the carriers wanted was more SKUs to manage when they were already killing us with the Droid. Customization would have come at the software level. A true hardware modular phone would be DOA.
All of that said, I think creating a new mobile platform, even one with modular hardware, is very doable today. There’s just a few constraints. It’s true you can’t create a new successful mainstream smartphone platform but if you are willing to compromise on a few things, there is plenty of room for new entrants.
What is a Smartphone Platform?
First let’s define our terms. A smartphone platform is:
Nailing all of these is required to be a successful smartphone platform today. As you can imagine, this is practically impossible to do from scratch. Smartphones are now a rich man’s game. You must be prepared to spend upwards of a few billion dollars a year just to have a seat at the table. Only a crazy person with too much cash would try it. Come on Larry!
However, smartphones ain’t what they used to be. Android, the open source project, (AOSP) is a good core with excellent driver support from chipset vendors. The flood of cheap Chinese phones means there are a bunch of factories who would love to make a device for you. Factories that can handle orders smaller than a million per run.
All of this means that if you are willing to compromise on one or more of the points above you can make money. It won’t be a ‘smartphone platform’ in the traditional sense and you won’t make billions, but you can still be profitable. Success doesn’t have to mean taking a 10% share of the global market. There are other ways to make money.
The key is to not build a smartphone, but rather a device built with smartphone components. It may still effectively be a smartphone (just as smartphones are effectively handheld computers); but don’t call it a smartphone. There are lots of markets underserved by current smartphones.
Here’s a few approaches:
The big question is: who would want a modular phone? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question is: who would want a modular device built out of phone parts. I think the answer is: a lot of people.
Don’t think of Ara as mass customization. Very few people want an everyday phone with swappable parts. However a lot of people would like a custom non-phone device built on a production run of 1.
Some things we could build with an Ara device:
Ara isn’t a PC. Don’t think in terms of upgrading RAM or graphics cards. Those are red herrings, like communism.
The value of Ara is building something completely different out of smartphone parts. This is already happening with smaller runs of custom Android devices (in the 100k range). Ara will let you build a custom device with a unit scale of one. Ara is the democratization of smartphone technology taken to it’s inevitable conclusion.
So you can take your mega-smartphone platforms to the bank. I’ve got a tricorder to build.