Companies Experiment with Build-Your-Own Smartphone Programs

If you could build your dream smartphone, what would it look like? Now suppose you could put it together yourself.

That's the promise of modular design, a new concept in smartphones that would basically let you snap together different components like Lego blocks. Say you want a great camera. Snap! A vivid screen and good sound because you watch a lot of video? Snap! But maybe you could live with a smaller battery because you spend most of your day at home or work. Snap!

Sure, phones now offer choices in color and storage. Motorola goes a bit further in letting you choose custom backs made of wood or leather. But the rest of the phone is pretty standard. You're stuck with the processor, battery and other hardware chosen by Motorola, Apple, Samsung and other tech companies.

With modular design, you could just pay for the components you need instead of settling for whatever manufacturers put in their designs. And instead of buying a new phone every year or two, you could just upgrade individual parts as they wear out or become obsolete.

LG is dipping its toes in the modular-design concept with its upcoming G5 smartphone, announced this week at a wireless conference. The bottom of the phone pops out to let you swap in new hardware. For starters, you'll be able to attach a camera grip with physical shutter buttons or insert a high-fidelity audio system if regular MP3-quality sound isn't good enough for you.

Google's Project Ara, which isn't making products yet, is also outlining a modular-design approach that starts with a structural frame and lets you add cameras, sensors and batteries. Google figures a phone could cost as little as $50 using the most basic parts.

A Dutch startup called Fairphone is selling the $580 Fairphone 2 online. Though it comes assembled,...

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