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Can Facebook's mystery device succeed where Google failed?

A patent application suggests that Facebook might be working on a mystery piece of modular consumer electronics.

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Facebook isn't a name that people associate with hardware, despite the company's successful Open Compute Project and spectacular failure with the HTC smartphone a few years ago.

So, what's Facebook cooking up this time?

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Well, the patent application, which was originally filed back in January but not published until last week, is so broad and far-reaching that it doesn't really tell us much. It's described as a "modular electromechanical device" that can incorporate elements such as speaker, microphone, display, GPS, and even a phone.

The drawings accompanying the patent applications show a very generic chassis with "cavities" that accept various devices.

Can Facebook mystery device succeed where Google Failed?
USPTO/Facebook

But at the core of the device is modularity, similar to that of the failed Google Project Ara modular smartphone.

So why modular? Well, according to the patent, it's to extend the lifecycle of the product.

"Typically, the hardware components included in the consumer electronics that are considered 'outdated' are still useable," the patent application states. "However, the hardware components can no longer be re-used since consumer electronics are designed as closed systems. From a consumer perspective, the life cycle of conventional consumer electronics is expensive and wasteful."

Facebook has confirmed that the technology was acquired through Nascent Objects, a startup that the company acquired in 2016 that specialized in 3D printing prototyping, but beyond that has declined to comment.

Modular devices have, as a general rule, not been all that successful.

Partly that's down to consumers not seeing benefit in the modularization, but also partly down to the fact that companies tend to lose interest in selling modules because the profit margins aren't anywhere near as good as selling an entire device.

Also, designing a modular device that can remain compatible with what's coming a year or two down the line is difficult (think how difficult it can be to upgrade a processor in a PC that's a few years old, yet that's a pretty tried-and-tested technology).

Can Facebook succeed where the likes of Google failed? The patent application really doesn't give us enough to go on to even guess.

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