By the Blouin News Technology staff

The evolving modular smartphone and open hardware

by in Personal Tech.

A prototype of a Fairphone smartphone in London in 2013. AFP/Getty Images

A prototype of a Fairphone smartphone in London in 2013. AFP/Getty Images

The notion of open hardware has trickled into mainstream tech over the last couple of years, and the debut of the modular smartphone has significantly pushed forward the concept. Google’s Project Ara has been the technology many in the U.S. have been looking to for driving the modular smartphone market forward, but in Europe there are projects that have gained popularity as well. The Amsterdam-based Fairphone takes the idea of the modular smartphone and adds a layer social responsibility to its product. The company revealed this week that it has developed a second version of its flagship device.

The idea behind open hardware is akin to that of open software in the sense that developers and — essentially anyone — can customize the product based off of a core technology. Open hardware supports creating a gadget with customizable features so that both user and developer can adjust and manipulate a unique piece of hardware. Fairphone’s device is a smartphone that has replaceable parts, attempting to eliminate the idea that users need to buy whole new phones every time one element needs replacing.

The company announced on June 16 that Fairphone 2 will release in the fall, and the device will be made of conflict-free minerals (tin and tantalum are both ingredients that are internationally recognized as conflict minerals). Fairphone promises to oversee its supply chain from beginning to end in that aspect. (It bears noting that Europe has been working on revamping its conflict mineral regulations as — over the last year — the E.U. has been criticized for its slack legislation in that regard.) Fashioned out of seven different modules, Fairphone is also purportedly made out of “as many recyclable materials as possible” according to the company. The official statement from Olivier Hebert, Chief Technology Officer at Fairphone, reads:

We very actively evaluated the materials and steps required to produce our phone, especially the mechanical parts, in order to minimize the social and environmental impact of producing those parts. For instance, we’ve tried to limit composite materials, favoring homogenous materials. We’ve also tried to use as many recycled materials as possible. We designed the parts to reduce secondary operations and additional processing, and we’ve reduced the use of coatings to a bare minimum.

Google has been working on a similar idea — although without the recycling and ethical aspects — but has not released the device for consumers yet. Last summer, it opened a modular developer contest to see who could develop the best software for its Project Ara smartphone. And, seen as the king of open software, naturally it compared its product in development to its champion Android — the shining example of the power of open software. But Google’s modular smartphone is still in the works. Phonebloks was another modular smartphone initiative launched in 2013 by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens who later went on to collaborate with Google’s Project Ara.

Fairphone clearly targets the socially responsible consumer, while also aiming to not forgo the flashy technology of the modern mobile device. The initial apprehension around the modular smartphone was that it will not have the same functionalities nor aesthetics of current high-end smartphones. But, Fairphone — with its inclusion of Android 5.1 (Lollipop) and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 processor — has clearly demonstrated that advanced mobile technologies are possible to include in a modular device. It remains to be seen if the Fairphone will take off with consumers, but it no doubt sets an important precedence for the future of open hardware.