Google's Project Ara gets some new rivals as Finnish startups invent the next wave of modular devices

Handsets where you can upgrade hardware as easily as software have always been a dream for consumers. Now, that dream is fast becoming a reality.

The latest design of the Puzzlephone
The latest design of the Puzzlephone. Image: Circular Devices

Nokia branding on smartphones might be history for now , but that hasn't scared Finnish startups away from the mobile market. What sets the country's newest entrants apart from other manufacturers is their focus on modularity — making handsets where hardware elements can be swapped out and updated as easily as apps. 

Chief among Finland's modular phone firms are Vsenn and Puzzlephone. Like the most notable modular phone project to date, Google's Project Ara , both startups are planning to launch their first phones in 2015.

Oulu-based Vsenn has piqued the curiosity of the tech world partly because it was co-founded by a former program manager of Nokia's Android X smartphone range .

The company, which only announced its branded modular phone plans in early November and remains mostly tight-lipped about the forthcoming product, is confident enough to name Project Ara as its main competitor. It aims to be nipping at Google's heels when it launches its first device in the second quarter of next year, the quarter after Project Ara's own commercial release.

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Vsenn claims it is building "the most secure and regularly updated Android OS platform using modular hardware". For the company, this emphasis on security means that all data on the phone will be protected using triple-layer encryption, and users will be provided with free access to a VPN network. Vsenn owners will also be offered guaranteed updates for the next four years for the vanilla Android OS. 

The idea behind modular phones is to give users the opportunity to modify the hardware to personalise their smartphone, so that it matches their needs and preferences - and to easily replace a part when it breaks.

While Project Ara aims to build highly-modular devices, like its second prototype device Spiral 2, the currently self-titled Vsenn device will have three modules that can be replaced or upgraded: the camera, the battery, and the processor. In addition, changeable back covers will let users customise the look of their phone.

Although the company has yet to release pricing details, it has said that the Vsenn's market price will be lower than those charged by the current big smartphone companies. That doesn't mean Vsenn will be easily affordable, however: the entry level iPhone 6 retails for £539 in the UK and the prices for Google's newly launched Nexus 6 phablet start at £499.

Added edge from sustainability 

Meanwhile the company behind the Puzzlephone, Helsinki-based Circular Devices, has taken a different approach. It has been very open about the development of its modular phone since the concept was first revealed to the public in January 2013. Officially founded this year by Spanish engineer Alejandro Santacreu, the company now has an international team of 11 finalising the Puzzlephone prototype for launch by the end this year. Its major differentiator is a focus on sustainability.

"The smartphone market's forecast for the next five years is it's an 'invaluable' market," says Santacreu. "What they forget to mention is that it's also an 'unaffordable' scenario: six billion people using devices with a lifespan shorter than 18 months and not meant to be repaired or upgraded? It is like the perfect recipe for a total disaster, those devices are built with rare and scarce materials." 

Circular Devices' answer is to build an easily repairable and upgradeable smartphone based on open source, initially Android. The materials currently considered for Puzzlephone are recyclable and have a low environmental impact. 

The Puzzlephone consists of display, battery, and main modules, the latter of which includes the rear camera and the processor. The display module packs stereo speakers and volume buttons. Neodymium magnets are used to attach these modules together and a mechanical latch keeps them in place.

While Vsenn has said its phone will be equipped with a 4.7-inch full HD screen, Puzzlephone, similarly to Project Ara, is planning to offer different display sizes:  4.3, 4.7 and five-inches.

According to Puzzlephone, focusing on three changeable modules means standard adoption will be quicker and cheaper as the physical layout is similar to smartphones today. 

"We are similar [to Project Ara] but with different physical approaches, in the sense that three pieces are closer to the device's actual internal distribution which translates into a cost-effective adoption by the industry," said Santacreu.

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"If you open your smartphone you will find these three vital body parts: the brain (electronics), the spine (display), and the heart (battery). They are already there for a good reason. For many years industry manufacturers have found it is the most efficient way of doing things. By trying to change this by splitting them into further modules, the supply chain would only suffer."

If Circular Devices is able to secure the funding needed for full R&D, the company expects to release the first Puzzlephone in the second half of 2015 in the mid-range price category.  Firmware and hardware standards for third parties to use will follow.

David takes on Goliath

Despite the competition, Santacreu believes there is plenty of room for smaller companies in the smartphone market.

"The illusion of saturation is the biggest challenge for any new hardware startup company talking about making phones. How can a market be considered saturated when all the sales forecasts point to immense growth yet at the same time there is a duopoly and one half of Android devices are lacking a real standard?" says Santacreu. "Luckily we are witnessing successful devices like the OnePlus One showing that there are consumers out there looking for alternatives no matter at what price range."

In a recent interview with the Finnish magazine DigiToday, Santacreu compares Puzzlephone and Project Ara to the old myth of NASA investing millions of dollars in a 'space pen' while the Soviet astronauts simply brought a pencil. It's easy to guess which one he thinks is the pencil.

At this stage Vsenn remains only words on a website and Puzzlephone has yet to reach a full prototype, but 2015 could well prove to be a defining moment not only for these startups but for modular phones in general.

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