Modular phones were a big thing for a short time, with Google's Project Ara being the one we were most excited about. However, after LG's efforts with the G5 fell flat, Lenovo failed to make anything much of Moto Mods and Project Ara was shelved, our hopes for a Lego phone were dashed.
As ever, the patent is a mire of legalese, and the distinctly un-thrilling title of Modular Device and Methods Therefor seems almost intentionally written to turn us off. Perhaps they were hoping we wouldn't notice the patent and thus reveal potential future plans for Google's hardware line.
The patent talks about a smartphone split into three components: the main unit with screen and essential hardware, external hardware modules that can be attached, and a case to hold it all together.
The modules fit onto a lip on the main phone unit:
According to the patent, modules could include:
Audio devices, gaming devices, fitness devices, scanning devices, imaging devices, user input devices, haptic devices, memory devices, or display devices.
Anyone else get excited by "haptic devices"? Rumble Paks for phones! OK, just us.
As ever with these things, Google is keeping its options wide open with the patent. It makes very clear that while it mostly talks about smartphones, it could also refer to pretty much any other kind of device, and that while it lists ideas for modules, there could be bajillions more that aren't specifically listed.
The patent explains why Google is interested in this kind of tech:
Many users today view their smart devices not only as utilitarian tools, but also as fashion statements as well. Other users demand niche features in smart devices so the devices can be used with hobbies or jobs.
This demand for customization is in conflict with the regulatory requirements such devices must meet before shipment.
While a manufacturer may like to have thousands of different SKUs [products, essentially] for electronic devices, this requires sending thousands of devices through regulatory testing. Wireless communication, product safety, product reliability, and other regulatory testing are expensive and time consuming. It would be advantageous to be able to provide customization options while mitigating device qualification demands.
In other words, it would be a lot faster to make a base phone, get that tested and certified, then provide any fancy features through modules rather than having to put a whole new phone through the system.
The patent also talks about what the phone could look like:
The housing, like the electronic accessory module, can be customized as desired by the user.
Housings can be manufactured with different mechanical features, different cosmetic styles and form factors, different, feature sets, in different colors, and from different materials.
The ability of a user to choose one or more electronic accessory modules and one or more housings, each operable with a common electronic device, allows the user to purchase a single electronic device and customize it in a myriad of different ways.
Honestly, if Google makes a build-your-own Android that's as good as it sounds here, it could finally have an iPhone killer on its hands*. [T3]
*Just kidding. People will of course continue to buy iPhones and claim that they prefer not being able to customise their handsets.