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Mobile Communications October 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Frederick Dopfel

Smartphone Mass Customization

Why is this topic significant?

As smartphones become more prevalent in everyday life, many users seek to personalize their devices as a reflection of themselves. Power users may even wish to customize the specs of their phone. Phone makers, mobile-service providers, and other parties are capitalizing on these users' desires through offering smartphone mass customization.

Description

Motorola launched the Moto X smartphone in 2013 and allowed customers to customize the aesthetics of the phone through Moto Maker, an online phone-designing program. Users could select the color of the phone's front and back panels, as well as the colors of the phone's metallic buttons and finishes. Since the launch of the Moto X, Motorola has released a smartwatch, a Bluetooth earpiece, and two new smartphone models—all of which are customizable. Motorola has also increased the versatility of its customization options, allowing customers to build their phones and watches using leather, wood, or metal materials.

Although Motorola allows its users to customize the aesthetics of their phones, the only functional customizations it offers users is storage capacity. Currently no smartphones allow users to customize their specifications as they could a new PC. However, that limitation may soon change. Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects group is developing a modular-phone prototype—Ara—that allows users to hot-swap modularized components such as the screen, battery, processor, mobile radio, and camera. ZTE announced Mobius, a modular-phone prototype, at CES 2014. And leaked images from a source at Xiaomi show a design for a modular phone: Magic Cube. Millions of people have tweeted support for modular phones in a campaign they call "Phoneblocks." Project Ara, however, appears to be the only modular phone making progress toward commercial release.

Implications

The desire to personalize a smartphone is not new: Personalized ringtones were common for some years, user-interface "themes" and custom icon sets are popular for many Android users, and millions of people put their phones in decorative cases that allow self-expression while providing some protection. However, as phones become more durable (see "Ruggedized Phones" in the September 2014 Viewpoints), more users may demand the ability to customize the physical structure of their phones so as to achieve the aesthetic benefits of a custom case without adding bulk. Customizable phones may also enable users to build a phone's internals specifically to their needs. A gamer may forgo a larger battery for a better processor, a photographer may focus on storage and an expensive camera module, and nonpower users may opt for larger batteries. These changes may cause the mobile-phone industry of the future to resemble more closely the desktop-PC industry of today.

Impacts/Disruptions

Mass customization may lead to substantial changes in phone manufacturing and distribution. For example, Motorola opened a factory in Texas when it began offering phones with customizable aesthetics in order to guarantee delivery of the phones to US customers within two days of designing them. (The factory has since closed, and manufacturing moved to China and Brazil.) Custom phones may also negate the need for wireless-service providers to have a physical presence; rather, device manufacturers may hold the financial burden of showrooms (offering customized versions of their phone on every service provider). Wireless-service providers may substantially reduce costs by eliminating storefronts, appearing (to the end user) more like an MVNO.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Low

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Specialized sensors, high-end computing equipment, disposable or single-use electronic components, advanced distribution systems, 3D printing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Carrier Aggregation and Sprint's Spark Network

Why is this topic significant?

Mobile-service providers have turned to load balancing as a method of compensating for increased data congestion on their networks. LTE Carrier Aggregation and Sprint's Spark network represent different approaches to redistributing load on spectrum assets.

Description

Managing data congestion in cities and other highly populated areas is a key area of concern for wireless-service providers. Although many providers choose to combat congestion by offloading traffic to Wi-Fi and small cells, researchers are also improving macro-cell technologies. In particular, networks must find ways to provide simultaneous service for phones in low-power, low-bandwidth use (such as periodic polling of a mail server) and for phones in high-power, high-bandwidth applications (such as streaming video). Carrier aggregation is one of the technologies that comprise LTE Advanced (see "An Overview of LTE Advanced" in the October 2013 Viewpoints), in which cell phones communicate to one or more towers using multiple disparate carrier frequencies (not to be confused with carriers, a term synonymous with wireless-service provider) to increase total data bandwidth. Presumably, this feature can automatically turn on or off (to save battery), depending on the phone's data demands. Carrier aggregation can better allocate load on spectrum, even if it does not improve spectrum efficiency. Many wireless-service providers began rolling out carrier aggregation in recent months, and many new high-end smartphones, including variants of the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S5, support the feature.

US wireless-service provider Sprint has a competing multicarrier technology: the Spark network. Sprint's Spark network uses LTE bands at 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz, and 2.5 GHz. Unlike carrier aggregation used by other service providers, phones on the Spark network appear to connect to only one of the frequency bands at a time (except in carrier aggregation between disparate 2.5 GHz bands). Some bands are reserved for low-speed activity such as ambient email polling; others are reserved for bandwidth-intensive tasks such as video streaming. Phones switch between the bands depending on the application running. Although press releases suggest that phones currently connect to only one of the bands at a time, Sprint may choose to enable carrier aggregation across all its LTE bands in the future.

Implications

Carrier aggregation and the Spark network offer different methods of distributing data between different towers and disparate spectral resources. These technologies do not, however, increase total spectrum resources or efficiency. Although carrier aggregation may more evenly distribute load, Sprint's approach allows for tailor-suited towers and spectrum for specific applications (for example, Sprint could reserve bands for towers with low latency back ends specifically for video conferencing).

Impacts/Disruptions

LTE Advanced and systems similar to Sprint's Spark network could help bring about a compromise between network speed and battery life in phones. For most of the day, phones would need to connect to only a single low-power, low-speed network to perform background tasks and then connect to multiple high-speed, high-power bands only when performing bandwidth-intensive tasks. Wireless-service providers may even consider building dedicated low-speed, low-power networks specifically for persistent connections, potentially granting phones much longer battery life when in idle mode. Although wireless-service providers will need to continue to build out capacity, load-balancing technologies may grant them more time to build the infrastructure.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Low

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

RF MEMS antennas and tuners

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: