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Phone customization: Do we want it? Do we need it?

This week, we’re debating the merits and drawbacks of phone customization, spurred by Motorola’s teasing of the upcoming Moto X. The Google subsidiary promised that the Moto X will be the first phone we’ll be able to design ourselves, though a leak revealed that the "designing" is just picking the colors and a custom engraving.
July 5, 2013
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This week, we’re debating the merits and drawbacks of phone customization, spurred by Motorola’s teasing of the upcoming Moto X. The Google subsidiary promised that the Moto X will be the first phone we’ll be able to design ourselves, though a leak revealed that the “designing” is just picking the colors and a custom engraving.

Customization is what makes Android so powerful, so we wondered what would happen if hardware would be just as open as Android software is.

Join us for the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!

Robert Triggs

I’m not totally sold on the idea that we really need detailed phone customization, after all, there are so many handsets already available to choose from.

Now case customization is actually an idea that I can back. Having the choice between different covers, waterproofing, additional scratch protection, etc. Those are all relatively easy to implement and will let consumers pick features which fit their lifestyles.

But there are limiting factors when it comes to implementing anything beyond the aesthetic level. Most SoCs aren’t compatible with different sockets for a start, so you’re going to be limited when it comes to hardware choices anyway. Then what about different bezels for screen sizes, or stocking different chips for various memory capacities? It’s just totally impractical to have intricate customization of a smartphone in the same way that you do a PC, not to mention that the build time and cost would be horrendous.

I like the idea behind the Sony XTRUD concept, as a guy who builds his own PCs, but I’m unsure whether it can be support properly enough to give people what they want. Just look at how many resources are poured into projects like CyanogenMod so that Android can run on various hardware configurations. I just don’t see any company stumping up that much of a time and monetary investment to support something which will most likely be a niche product anyway.

The Moto X seems to be the sweet spot in my opinion. It has enough customisation options to personalise your handset without the costs and technical issues associated with having a huge range of hardware configurations to satisfy.

Joshua Vergara

I actually think customization would bring back some fun that has been missing in the smartphone market. In my previous video giving current thoughts on the Galaxy S4, I made the case that because the phone doesn’t really attract eyes like I feel it should, the device itself started to feel old. That’s because conceptually and in design, it really is. Sticking to the same general idea as the Galaxy S3 wasn’t a mistake, but it is a bit of a bummer after some time.

Now, imagine if at the time of buying your new phone, you were presented with options. I’m talking the same level of customization that Nike Jordans or Kobe shoes give you. Seriously, if you’ve never looked at basketball shoe customization, check it out and imagine the same system for smartphones. Perhaps an example that better hits home is laptop/desktop customization, but I think you all get my drift.

Different colors for different parts of the phone, perhaps etched designs, and, while we’re at it, what if you bought one with slightly lesser specs to make it even more affordable? I do this with laptops every time – go for the best of last generation’s hardware to keep the cost low. Imagine getting a Moto X with a Snapdragon S4 Pro knowing it’ll still be fast for you!

Customization excites me because I learned something recently – I miss the old days of phones. We call them dumbphones or feature phones now – but back when Sony was paired with Ericsson, back when Japanese phones seemed like things of myth, before every phone was a black screen with differing backs, we had a lot more choice and it was possible to get a phone no one else had.

It’s not entirely that we want a phone no one else has – that’s a misleading way of putting it. In the end, some (plenty) of us want something quintessentially us. If our smartphones are supposed to be extensions of ourselves, why not take that to the fullest extent?

Andrew Grush

As someone who loves building powerful desktop rigs just so I can get the hardware specs exactly how I want them, you’d think I’d be all over the idea of a truly customizable smartphone platform. In reality? It’s a cool idea, but not a practical one.

With a smartphone you are talking about a tiny little chassis, and many components that are tightly squeezed together or even fully integrated. Having to make room for quick design changes certainly would be a challenge.

While creating full processor/RAM/screen customization isn’t impossible in the smartphone arena, it could prove to be a very expense process. And much of that expense would translate over to consumers.Why pay $1000+ for that customized smartphone when there’s already likely a vendor out there with a smartphone configured ‘close enough’ to your dream phone, but at a price that is hundreds of dollars less?

That said, it is fully possible to do a partially customizable phone – like with the Moto X. With this approach you get a phone that is in the color combo you desire, making it easier to stand out in a crowded sea of mobile devices. It’s not quite full customization, but for most mobile users, it is enough.Will other brands follow if the Moto X proves popular? Maybe. But let’s be honest, there are probably expenses and other considerations even in Motorola’s approach that might not make sense for most manufacturers.

Motorola is able to pull of some of these moves because they are part of Google, and Google doesn’t aim to make money directly off phone hardware.

Joe Hindy

I believe that phone customization is, in and of itself, the epitome of Android. You look at 100 Android phones from 100 random people and you’re likely to get 100 different configurations. Different widgets, apps, launchers, and even OEM skins in you’re into that sort of thing. So why not phone customization? Why not be able to only customize what’s on the screen but around the screen as well? In my mind’s eye, it’s the next big, logical step in the smartphone market.

Now, as Andrew pointed out, customization to the extent of the internals is simply silly. All those pieces are also very small and, in my cases, are soldered together. Unlike the PC market, where you can screw or snap everything into place, putting a smartphone together from scratch would be ridiculously difficult for the average person and even most tech nerds. I can build a PC, but I have no clue how to handle a solder gun.

However, that doesn’t mean that internal customization isn’t possible. There are scenarios where the company can add customizations easier than the customer could. For instance, a customer who doesn’t take a lot of pictures could change the camera from a base 13MP to an 8MP or even a 4MP to save a few bucks. Maybe they want to MAXX it out and give it a bigger battery (see what I did there?). I mean if you never use the front facing camera, is there any reason to include one that records 720p video? Of course not. The point being that while the main specs such as the CPU, GPU, RAM, etc may not be ergonomic enough to customize, there are plenty of other pieces inside the phone that can be customized.

The last thing I want to point out is that, theoretically, it is possible to put the guts of one phone into the case of another. I’m not saying it’s easy or cost effective, but it is possible. Just take a look at Project Revolution, which got the guts of the legendary HTCHD2 into the the HTCEVO 4G body.

Bottom line. Am I for customization? Oh yeah. Do I hope it happens? You betcha. It would be beyond awesome to customize your phone as easily as you can customize your Android experience. Is this what the Motorola X delivers? Not by a long shot, but as the old staying goes, it’s a start!

Adam Koueider

A lot of people buy their smartphones based on the brand name or the product name. For example: my mother wants to get a Galaxy Note 2, but does she really need a 1.6Ghz Quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM? Probably not. Since it’s a Galaxy Note 2 it makes it a desirable, but with phone customization you can save a few dollars. Now I’m not asking for too much, but here’s a rather simple proposition:

  • Processor: Snapdragon 400, 600 and 800
  • RAM: 1GB, 2GB, 3GB
  • Camera: 5MP, 8MP, 13MP
  • Screen resolution: 720P, Full HD
  • Operating system: Stock Android, TouchWiz/Sense/Xperia UI etc.

In fact, some could say that smaller OEMs like HTCcould just have one or two products with these customizations available. But then we snap back to reality and realize that this is probably never going to happen. The other side of phone customization is a little more possible though.

I remember my old Nokia 2730 classic. The first thing I did was go to a guy at the market who swapped the shell of the device for a neon orange one. Why? Because I was 15, and when you’re 15 the only colors you are interested are neon colors and having your phone’s color match your neon soccer boots. It cost me $15 and about 15 minutes of my time, however, now it is virtually impossible.

Samsung indirectly offers a little customization by having a removable back plate, so for those of you who dislike the plastic back of the Galaxy S3 or S4, a quick ebay search will find you an aluminum back plate.

But yet again, it’s Nokia leading the smartphone customization options (I’ve said this a few times, Nokia please come to Android, I miss you) with the Nokia Lumia 820. Believe it or not, Nokia has released a 3D-printing Development Kit to allow consumers to 3D print a custom shell for their Lumia. That’s without adding the fact that it’s also available in wide range of colors.

While we don’t all have access to a 3D printer now, perhaps in 10 years we might have our own 3D printers at home, and not to mention the businesses that can be created for creating a custom shell for your smartphone. I’m genuinely interested in the customization that the Moto X will offer. It probably won’t be as good as I would like it to be, but it’s a start.

Does true phone customization have a future?

Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.

[poll id=”328″]