Facebook Hints at Modular Hardware Comeback

For the past few years, researchers have experimented with the idea of a modular smartphone, loaded up with components that users could swap out at will. But while the idea seems great on paper, it’s never quite reached the commercial stage: the last publicized attempt, Alphabet’s “Project Ara,” died without a whimper in late 2016.

But now it seems that Facebook is researching modularity. Business Insider has highlighted a patent application from the social network that describes a “modular electromechanical device.” As described in the application’s summary, this hardware would circumvent the issues with obsolescence that confront the vast majority of electronic devices: why toss the whole thing away when it gets too old, when you can just swap out the outdated components for new ones?

Unlike Project Ara, which focused on smartphones, Facebook’s patent details a device with a speaker, processor, touch pad, display, and microphone. Sure, that could be a phone of some sort, but it’s easier to envision a “smart speaker” along the lines of Amazon’s Echo or Apple’s upcoming HomePod:

The idea of a Facebook-branded smart speaker seems more likely when you consider the social network’s intense interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Facebook’s “M” project aims to give every user a personal digital assistant capable of carrying out a number of tasks; while human staffers currently field at least a portion of these user requests, an A.I. system will (theoretically) one day take over the whole operation.

For tech pros who specialize in hardware, and who perhaps want to launch some sort of startup, the idea of modular components becoming popular is perhaps an enticing one. In theory, single-function modules would be easier to create, produce, and release than a full-fledged device, just as producing an app is almost always easier than crafting an entire operating system.

But until a company produces a breakout platform to host those modular components, the dream of crafting a successful startup based off this concept may have to wait.

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