What Project Ara and modular phones could mean for the future of mobile customer service

March 24, 2014
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When we first heard about modular phone projects like PhoneBloks, initially mobile tech publications like Android Authority, industry experts and even tech enthusiasts were skeptical about whether such a concept could ever be anything more than just a pipe-dream.

Although a smartphone that can have new parts “plugged in” and exchanged certainly sounds impressive, there are some very real technical hurdles that come with such an idea. To name just a few there’s modular quality and control, the logistics behind managing various parts on a grid, and how to design such a device without making it too bulky or too fragile. Of course, if anyone can turn such a dream device into reality, it would be Google.

In October of 2013, Motorola announced Project Ara, a modular platform that promised to transform the way we think about smartphone hardware. Even after revealing that Motorola would be sold to Lenovo, Google made it clear that they still were very passionate about pushing Project Ara forward and announced that the project would stay behind with Google after the sale.

The promise of Project Ara

With a developer’s conference planned for April 15th, Google is working hard to get Project Ara up off the ground and is hoping to lure developers that are interested in creating modules that will work with the platform. But why are we so interested in Project Ara? What benefits does modular computing provide for the mobile industry and for consumers?

What benefits does modular computing provide for the mobile industry and for consumers?

For Google’s part, the company has already talked a bit about how the platform could be perfect for bringing smartphone technology to those that can’t afford a high-end handset. Just last month, Google’s Ara project head Paul Eremenko said that the goal is to release Ara in base form for as little as $50, giving consumers a way to purchase the device while making it possible to slowly add cameras, cellular connectivity, more RAM and other features without having to pay so much up front.

Another obvious benefit to Project Ara is that it could allow folks to custom-tailor their handsets to meet their own individual needs, a concept PC building enthusiasts are very familiar with. We’ve also heard about how modular phones could potentially cut down the waste generated from when people ditch their smartphones, especially if some kind of modular trade in program existed. And then there’s just the cool factor of having a phone that has lego-brick-like parts that simply snap into place.

But what about from a customer service angle? To get a better idea of how Project Ara and other modular phone platforms like Eco-Mobius could eventually lead to improved customer experiences, we recently sat down for an interview with Raul Sfat, VP of Sales and Marketing at B2X Care Solutions to speculate about some of the ways that modular phones could potentially help benefit end-users. We also discussed some of the ways that Project Ara could eventually impact manufacturers, carriers, insurance providers and the mobile industry in general.

What is B2X Care Solutions, what role do they play in the mobile industry? 

While Raul Sfat and B2X Care Solutions are not involved with Project Ara in any capacity, the company does have a history of providing backend and frontend customer care solutions for consumer electronics. They also have working relationships with several major manufacturers, insurance providers, mobile network operators and even various retailers throughout the globe.

Founded in 2006, the company handles over 10 million service incidents per year, and has a staff of over 400. In short, B2X Care Solutions has a deep understanding of how the mobile industry works, particularly when it comes to servicing and repairing consumer electronics.

Without further ado, let’s jump in and take a look at some of the possible ways that the mobile industry could change if modular phone projects like Ara ever truly ‘take off’.

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Project Ara could led to a paradigm shift when it comes to mobile customer service

As Raul Sfat pointed out during our interview, if you were to break your display or if you run into an issue where the phone is no longer running like it should, one of the first things you would do is report the problem to your phone insurance provider or contact the manufacturer if it’s an issue that is covered by a warranty. Your carrier or manufacturer would then require you to ship it back to them, where it would then be sent to a repair center to be checked and diagnosed.

Regardless of what the problem is, in many cases you would be sent a new (or rather refurbished) unit, instead of receiving the same unit that you actually sent in. The unit you sent would then eventually be fully diagnosed and repaired back to factory condition. This is not only a cost intensive model for the companies that repair your handset, it can also be a time-consuming process for the consumer.

Project Ara could erase some of the problems we currently face when it comes to having our phones serviced

Swapping phones can also lead to consumer confusion and other mistakes. Speaking personally, my brother-in-law recently had an issue with a Verizon handset where he had to send it for exchange with another. He was told they no longer carried or had access to his phone and so he was actually given a completely different model. While not necessarily a worse model, the phone had a larger form factor that he was previously accustomed to. Thankfully, he did eventually get the issue resolved and had the right phone sent to him.

The point is that Project Ara could erase some of the problems we currently face when it comes to having our phones serviced. Your camera isn’t working or your battery isn’t holding a proper charge? As Raul puts it, there would no longer be a need to send in your device except in the most extreme cases, instead you’d simply tell them what’s wrong, you’d send in the defective part and “they’d mail you a new one free of charge” — provided it was covered under warranty or insurance, of course.

This would not only lead to a better experience for the consumer, it might even reduce costs for the insurance provider, manufacturer, carrier and/or retailer. This is especially true if they could create an effective model for recycling, reusing and refurbishing existing components.

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Moving from a reactive to preventive model

While a modular smartphone platform could make repair easier by allowing us to self-replace parts when they go bad, what’s even more important is that Project Ara and similar platforms could also help the mobile customer service industry move from a reactive model over to a preventive one. So how to we make the transition to a preventive model when it comes to maintaining mobile devices? Big data, combined with an open platform like Ara, could certainly be the key.

Project Ara could allow us to move towards a proactive customer care model, where carriers and manufacturers can track your phone’s behavior and can predict certain patterns.

By collecting large amounts of data about the way we use our phone and how well it’s running, our carrier, manufacturer or mobile insurance provider would be able to better understand what we need in order to provide us with an optimal mobile experience. Sfat uses the example of making a morning commute, and along the way you regularly pass a particular area every morning that tends to lead to dropped calls on your network. Thanks to the data collected from a handset, your carrier could alert you of alternative routes that could provide better service or other changes you could make to improve reception during your commute.

Tracking the patterns on your phone could also led to early diagnosis of problems, before they become major issues

Tying into Project Ara, tracking the patterns on your phone could also led to early diagnosis of problems, before they become major issues. Your manufacturer or insurance provider might notice your phone isn’t holding a charge as well as it used to, and it could then notify you that it’s time to swap in a new battery. If you have a handset that is slowing down due to intensive use of resources, a manufacturer could also make suggestions on how to improve the situation such as upgrading to a larger RAM module or replacing the CPU/GPU.

Of course, not everyone is okay with the idea of having their phone patterns tracked. In order to for consumers to accept this level of data tracking, carriers and manufacturers would likely need to ensure that proper security measures are taken in order to keep a customer’s private data and files away from prying eyes. Even then, there are folks that would likely want a way to opt out of some of the more advanced (invasive) forms of tracking.

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Project ARA and insurance implications

You might be wondering, “If I can simply pop in new parts, why would I even need device insurance?” It’s true that modular smartphone platforms would be much easier to self-repair then ever before, but that doesn’t mean parts won’t go bad and pricing of individual modules could still be expensive enough that insurance would still make sense.

The mobile insurance industry will obviously need to adapt to the changes that come with modular computing if it is going to keep getting your business. While we can’t say with any certainty how the industry will change to meet the new challenges and opportunities presented by a mobile modular platform, it seems likely we would eventually see the introduction of new business models.

Instead of simply covering your phone in the event of damage, you could have insurance plans that cover only specific modules or perhaps just the mainboard and display. Speculating a bit further, perhaps insurance providers could also consider offering preventive plans that include upgrades to certain parts in order to insure optimal device performance. To get the replacement parts you’d not only have to pay your monthly preventive plan fee, but there might also be a deductible involved.

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How modular computing could affect manufacturers

It’s not just the mobile insurance industry that would need to adapt to modular computing. Manufacturers and carriers will also need to make certain changes if they wished to embrace mobile modular computing.

Although Project Ara is currently billed as a DIY platform, this could change in time. Manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG and HTC could easily introduce their own modular platforms or could even use the same universal platform (though that seems less likely). While some of these manufacturers might offer consumers the ability to buy a phone base and add parts as they wish, others might go with a model more akin to what we see from PC makers like Dell.

Imagine something similar to the Moto Maker. Maybe manufacturers will offer you more options to customize when you buy your phone, but you will be able to define the camera, the board, the display.
Raul Sfat
VP of Sales and Marketing at B2X Care Solutions

Dell’s website has plenty of different PC models that have default configurations that you can simply order from as-is. But what if you want a faster CPU, more RAM, or a bigger hard-drive? Depending on the PC model, there are drag-down boxes that let you easily make changes. Once you’re finished you pay for your order and then Dell builds and ships your custom-tailored computer to your door.

Imagine a base Samsung Galaxy S that has certain default specs, but you’d rather up the display to 2K over the default 1080p, or perhaps you simply want an 128GB storage option or a different back on the phone. Using a modular platform, Samsung could make these changes and could then send you a Galaxy that’s custom-tailored to meet your needs.

Down the road if you wanted to make a change, such as adding more RAM or upgrading the processor? Samsung would likely require you to have the upgrade done by a “Samsung authorized service provider”, at least if you wished to keep your device warranty in place.

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How might carriers react to modular computing

Particularly in the United States, carriers like to have as much control possible and, therefore, it seems unlikely that providers like Verizon would be open to modular computing without some level of control.

Of course, there’s also opportunity here for carriers. Sfat suggests that as 3D printing advances, there could come a day where you could go into your local Verizon or AT&T store and they could print out a new phone part and install for you, complete with a big old carrier logo on it. We imagine that carriers would love the idea of offering in-house branded parts and accessories, at least if such a model proved practical and affordable. Heck, there could even be a point in time where we could design an entire phone from an in-store kiosk and have it printed out immediately — though that’s obviously a long ways off.

Carriers could also likely end up using proprietary locking methods for components, in partnership with manufacturers, so that you couldn’t change out parts without their approval.

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Is this still nothing more than a pipe-dream? Will modular phones find mass appeal?

The idea of true phone customization is enough to make the geek in me start salivating, but the reality is that Project Ara and platforms like Eco Mobius are still very much in their early days.

As previously mentioned, there is still concern about the viability of the platform, especially when it comes to the logistics involved with both the individual modules and the endoskeleton (main board, base). It’s also unclear about the costs involved with getting such a platform off the ground.

We also have to consider design. While Project Ara has sort of a geek-chic vibe about it, we have a feeling not all consumers will like the idea of seeing every component’s outercasing with a divider in between it. One solution is to create a thin back that covers the components, but that could bring additional bulk to the phone.

Some of the ideas regarding 3D printing and the change of carrier/manufacturer/insurance models are also changes that won’t happen overnight, but that’s the point. Google’s interest in Project Ara isn’t necessarily about changing the world tomorrow — it’s about investing in the future.

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Project Ara is about investing in the future

Although Google has ambition of releasing the first modular phone hardware as early as next year, we have no doubt that the platform will be limited in scope, at least initially. There will likely only be a limited number of handsets available to the public for purchase, and the number of available modules will also be in relative short supply. Still, you have to start somewhere.

Google’s interest in Project Ara isn’t necessarily about changing the world tomorrow — it’s about investing in the future

Sure, Project Ara and modular phones might seem like a pipe-dream right now, but ten years from now? Technology moves quickly. Ten years ago from today, advanced mobile operating systems like Android and iOS would have seemed unbelievable. Quad-core phones? Forget about it.

You can argue that PC building exists but isn’t popular among the common man, and therefore modular phones will never be any more common. Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that companies like Dell make it easy to customize your computers in whatever way you wish, even if the device itself isn’t put together by the end-user. While DIY modular phones will likely remain niche, that doesn’t mean manufacturer-assembled and upgraded modular phones won’t eventually come to be popular.

Bottom-line, modular phones have a ton of potential, particularly from the angle of improving end-user/customer experiences, even if such a model is still unproven in the mobile world. Whether modular phones can actually live up to this potential remains unseen for now.

What do you think of modular computing, is it the future or will it prove to be impractical in the long-run? Do you like the idea of modular phones and big data collaborating to provide us an optimal user experience, or do you not like the idea of a carrier or manufacturer having such intimate knowledge over the way you use your mobile device? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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