As silicon manufacturers begin to fall short of the pace set by Moore’s Law, the incentive for alternative methods of hardware innovation will increase. A number of settings have seen the benefits of modularity, including data center design, so could devices as small as smartphones take advantage of these benefits? Some researchers believe they could, suggesting that hardware modularity may have a shot at success.
Replace or Upgrade?
One of the remaining benefits of desktop PCs over smaller devices like tablets and even notebooks is that they enable relatively easy upgrades. Through simple equipment additions or replacements (such as adding RAM, updating a video card or purchasing a new monitor), most users can extend the life of their machines. Contrast that with today’s typical smartphone or tablet, which is typically discarded if any of its capabilities fail to meet the needs of the user.
Not only does this modularity permit upgrades and extension of hardware life, it helps reduce e-waste by essentially “recycling” components that are still serviceable. In smaller devices designed to be slim or even to fit in a pocket, the tightly packed components make user upgrades practically impossible. But the concept of modularity for hardware remains appealing, not only for upgrades but also for repairs. Imagine, for instance, being able to simply connect a new screen if you drop your smartphone and crack the display; for high-end models, such a replacement could save hundreds of dollars or, at a minimum, the expense and wait time of hiring someone to repair the device.
With Moore’s Law in full swing, however, the incentive to upgrade is reduced, since new processor technologies make purchasing an entirely new device almost as economical as upgrading. A slowing Moore’s Law could eliminate reverse this situation; at a minimum, the advent of “good-enough” computing means that the appeal of faster processors is lessened. The result could be a greater focus on hardware innovation. According to MIT’s Technology Review, “Google thinks modularity may succeed now thanks to the shrinking cost and size of the underlying electronics and because innovation in conventional mobile hardware is slowing down.” EETimes notes that “style and usability will matter more as devices won’t be able to sell on pure spec improvement [thanks to Moore’s Law]. People will also put a higher value on craftsmanship and design, and be more inclined to fix broken devices, because there won’t always be an upgrade available. ” The article notes that the Chinese market is already seeing this phenomenon, “where consumers buy parts of old phones, schematics, PCB files, and source code to repair and build new phones.”
What Could It Look Like?
In the context of smartphones, a modular device might start with a basic frame that allows users to add components, whether they be selections of common parts like displays, cameras or interfaces, or special-purpose functions for sensor, fitness or medical applications. Google’s vision involves “the endoskeleton, which has eight rear slots for modules, two front-facing slots for components such as a screen and a button panel, and onboard power and data transmission. Parts could be replaced or upgraded without discarding the rest of the phone, and the finished device could be adapted to serve any number of special functions.”
The difficulty, however, is avoiding the kind of weight and size penalties that come with modularity. Smartphones are designed with a fixed feature set, meaning that designers can arrange the internal components just right to minimize the form factor, but such an arrangement is unlikely to be amenable to modularity. The desktop PC, by contrast, has all but an unlimited amount of space, so such concerns are moot. Some companies, however, are investigating ways to improve even PC modularity, such as Razer’s “Project Christine,” as well as the slightly more conventional products from Xi3.
In addition to function, many users are also look for style in their devices. Thus, a modular form factor that resembles a Borg device may lack appeal for many consumers. One possibility is a case that can be opened to add or remove components, providing a sleek outward appearance, rather than one with exposed slots or connectors. Each approach, however, would have its own advantages and disadvantages.
Enabling Trends and Technologies
A number of barriers hamper the kind of modularity that would enable a user to easily modify a smartphone or even build one from scratch, not the least of which is a standard architecture to support a selection of modules. Open hardware is a growing trend that could help in this area by encouraging innovation without the stifling restrictions of intellectual property that are currently hindering the smartphone industry (among others). Movement on an architecture is a difficult dance, however, as it depends on an ecosystem of developers that create components and software to support it.
For non-electronic components, 3D printing could fill in the gap. A 3D printer could, for instance, manufacture cases or other structural components, although this technology would likely be a little too extreme for most consumers. Those looking to experiment or create radically new designs, however, could benefit from the flexibility of 3D printing; the technology, however, may require further development to be truly practical in this case.
Moore’s Law: Dead or Lingering?
It’s unlikely that processor innovation in the style of Moore’s Law will simply cease. Even if silicon manufacturers fail to keep pace with Moore’s Law, they will no doubt continue to improve their products, albeit at a slower clip. The key for other forms of hardware innovation is that this pace of development no longer obsoletes new developments before they can be brought to market—a difficulty that has hampered such innovation in recent decades.
EETimes notes, “If Moore’s Law saw technology doubled every 18 months, that meant someone working on a linear improvement…could be getting 80% performance improvement per year, and Moore’s Law would be shipping something better by year two.” MIT research affiliate Andrew Huang said, “The problem has been that sitting and waiting has actually been a viable strategy versus innovation. This problem is particularly acute in hardware.” In some sense, then, the gains from an end to Moore’s Law could outweigh the costs, particularly in an era of good-enough computing.
Regardless of which has the greater effect, the fact that Moore’s Law is on the ropes combined with the decreasing usefulness of more computing power means that consumers (including businesses) may hunger for new kinds of innovation, and modularity is one possibility. In the case of smartphones, which may be seeing the beginnings of market saturation, modularity could save consumers money while giving them greater choice and the ability to upgrade rather than discarding devices entirely. The result could also be slightly positive for the growing e-waste problem. But given the prominence of Moore’s Law for so many decades now, the direction of new hardware innovation may be anyone’s guess.