Startup gets to smartphone modularity before Google’s Ara

Startup gets to smartphone modularity before Google’s Ara

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

Last May, Nexpaq’s Kickstarter campaign consolidated the founders’ idea as they collected USD 279,758, well over five times their initial USD50,000 goal to put their modular smartphone cases into production

"Back in 2012, our first intention was to serve the B2B market (think railway maintenance, logistics, sales) with specialized phones back-plates that would extend any commercial phone into dedicated tools" explained Murawski, "then at the beginning of 2013, we came up with the idea of the whole modular smartphone case and applied patents for it".

So you can imagine the company’s surprise when the Ara project was announced.

"We like Google’s Ara project, they picked up very interesting ideas such as the permanent magnets to hold the modules in place and using a new MIPI interface (MIPI UniPort-M) to interconnect the modules" Murawski says, seeing the project’s development as yet another indicator that modularity is definitely the way to mass customization.

As for any possible technology overlaps or patent infringements between Ara and Nexpaq, Murawski puts things straight: "We have not found patents concerning Google Ara but it could be that some are being reviewed, so we would have to wait a year or so before we can access those, and then maybe get in touch with Google".

But apart from the modularity aspect, Nexpaq does things very differently.

"I believe there is room for both concepts, but Google Ara is going in the very opposite direction to what happened to the PC industry over the last 20 years. Initially, modularity only existed at the personal computer (PC) level, you could change your mother board, add a graphic card, add a sound card, plug-in some peripherals, then all these components got shrunk and optimized into today’s smartphones" noted Murawski.

"But by splitting the smartphone into different modules, they are adding connectors and interfaces and adding complexity, so the Ara modular smartphone could never be as optimized as today’s commercial smartphones".

"In fact, I can’t see myself in this Ara ecosystem, with many different chipset vendors having to figure out the efficient bridging between their modules and try to have an overall optimized product. Instead we start from already optimized commercial smartphones and build our hardware apps on top of them, into our modular smartphone cases".

Murawski explained that at one of the early Ara developer conferences, he had met several developers willing to swap their bulky Ara kits for a Nexpaq developer kit.

"We are doing the same as Apple did several years ago by providing an open infrastructure for millions of developers to build apps", continued Murawski.

"We are not locking anyone in, but we want to have a centralized hardware and app store and provide the physical specs with the right physical tolerances to ensure all modules using our brand are compatible with the smartphone modular cases we develop".

Similar to Apple, the company could strike manufacturing deals, with quality audits, special hardware tests and software quality controls.

Nexpaq is already offering twelve modules developed in-house, namely a battery extension, a breathalizer, amplified speakers, temperature and humidity sensors, a LED flashlight, an SD card reader, a USB flash key, hotkeys that can act as remotes, an air quality analyser, a 64Gb memory backup, and a laser pointer.

It is also working with third party experts to develop more specialized modules where special accreditations may be required (think medical, banking, law enforcement).

But the big plan of course is to build a modular ecosystem and a hardware app store to bring users and developers together and foment innovation, for potentially thousands of different swappable modules to be brought to market.

Nexpaq’s hardware roadmap. Click image to enlarge.

As your smartphone is sled into the modular case, the nexpaq exoskeleton connects not only via Lightning with the iPhone or Micro USB for Android smartphones, but also with Bluetooth.

This means it could also be used as a remote for some applications. Six modules can be plugged-in at any given time, and as users swap in a new module, the Nexpaq app automatically updates.

During its Kickstarter campaign, Nexpaq polled its backers to know for which smartphones they should make the casing shells, but all the exoskeletons share the same module footprints, so in effect, the modules are compatible between iOS and Android smartphones and could work across multiple generations of phones (as long as Nexpaq provides the appropriate shell). This makes the modules truly swappable across users.

"Nexpaq will have multiple revenue streams. First we are developing the hardware and selling it, but in a second phase, as our hardware app store develops, we’ll make less money from the hardware itself but more from the data these modules will generate", explained Murawski.

"Since we’ll be offering the cloud infrastructure for the Nexpaq apps, we’ll be monitoring the data, and we could work more as a data broker enabling new data-derived services. Of course, Privacy is our priority number one, and if some users don’t want to share their data, they own it and we wouldn’t access it", clarified the CEO.

The company started with smartphones as the core engine, but far out on its roadmap, it envisages that the standardized modules could plug into other purpose-made casings. Nexpaq would only need to identify someone else’s commercial success to piggy-back its modules thanks to a new modular case.

One obvious example would be to adapt the concept to tablets, but this could be extended to home monitoring hubs or even wearables, all sharing the same modules and the same cloud infrastructure.

The kickstarter campaign

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