The future of mobile: DIY handsets

19 Feb 2008

When I met Martin Cooper - ArrayComm president and famed inventor of the mobile phone - at a LiMo Foundation at the Mobile World Congress last week, I asked him if he imagined back when he and his team were designing the first Motorola DynaTac cell phone in the early 70s that one day they'd be used for everything from accessing computer networks to watching TV.

His response, paraphrased, was this: "We had some kind of idea where cellular phones would go, but we didn't necessarily imagine we'd see it happen in our lifetime."

Meanwhile, on the show floor, Israel-based modu was showcasing an interesting concept for how mobile phones could evolve next - by going modular.

modu's core product is a mobile phone a little smaller than a credit card that can then be snapped into a range of interchangeable "sleeves" or "jackets" with different functionalities. Slip it into one jacket and it's a music player. Slip in in another and it's a video hub. Or a gaming console. Or a PND. And so on.

Sceptics may scoff at the idea of clip-on functionality in an age where you can buy handsets with all that functionality already integrated. On the other hand, they may be missing the point. The modu is essentially a wireless modem that costs about the same as a low-midrange handset (about $200, according to Springwise), with jackets costing anywhere from $20 to $60. And in the future, they'll be connectable to any consumer electronics device with a USB slot. Until CE manufacturers get in the habit of installing wireless radios in everything they make, maybe the fabled M2M concept of networking "things" as well as people starts here.

Whether anyone really wants to change jackets on their phones all the time remains to be seen, of course, but modu's not the only company betting on the modular model. US start-up Bug Labs has a similar idea - it's selling DIY phone modules that can be snapped together to create a phone with a touhchscreen, GPS, camcorder and motion sensor in whatever combination pleases you. (And it runs on Linux, of course.)

And if modular DIY is too much effort for you, but you're still particular about phones that cater to your specific needs, a company called zzzPhone will build it for you. Go to the web site, select the features you want - camera, GPS, flashlight, touch screen, or even dual SIM slots - and your order is placed to a factory in Shenzhen, China, which will send it direct to you in about 15 days. Prices start at $149.

Okay, so the boards of Nokia, Samsung and Motorola probably won't lose much sleep over start-ups selling customized handsets - unless they catch on, of course. The iPhone was a major wake-up call to the Big 7 - maybe modu, Bug Labs or zzzPhone will be the follow-up call.

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