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EETE JULAUG 2015

consumer electronics Startup beats Google’s Ara to smartphone modularity BBy Julien Happich ack in 2012, even before Google’s project Ara was announced with fanfare, Nexpaq’s CEO & Co-Founder Lech Alexander Murawski and his partners had started tinkering with the idea of specially developed add-on modules for smartphones, which then led them at the beginning of 2013 to apply for several patents on modular smartphone cases enabling cross-platform swappable functionalities. Last May, Nexpaq’s Kickstarter campaign consolidated the founders’ idea as they collected USD 279,758, well over five times their initial USD50,000 goal to put their modular smartphone cases into production. EETimes Europe caught up with Murawski to get his views on the future of modular smartphones and how he plans to develop his company. “Back in 2012, our first intention was to serve the B2B market (think railway maintenance, logistics, sales) with specialized phones back-plates that would extend any commercial phone into dedicated tools” explained Murawski, “then at the beginning of 2013, we came up with the idea of the whole modular smartphone case and applied patents for it”. So you can imagine the company’s surprise when the Ara project was announced. “We like Google’s Ara project, they picked up very interesting ideas such as the permanent magnets to hold the modules in place and using a new MIPI interface (MIPI UniPort-M) to interconnect the modules” Murawski says, seeing the project’s development as yet another indicator that modularity is definitely the way to mass customization. As for any possible technology overlaps or patent infringements between Ara and Nexpaq, Murawski puts things straight: “We have not found patents concerning Google Ara but it could be that some are being reviewed, so we would have to wait a year or so before we can access those, and then maybe get in touch with Google”. But apart from the modularity aspect, Nexpaq does things very differently. “I believe there is room for both concepts, but Google Ara is going in the very opposite direction to what happened to the PC industry over the last 20 years. Initially, modularity only existed at the personal computer level, you could change your mother board, add a graphic card, add a sound card, plug-in some peripherals, then all these components were shrunk and optimized into today’s smartphones” notes Murawski. “But by splitting the smartphone into different modules, they are adding connectors and interfaces and adding complexity, so the Ara modular smartphone could never be as optimized as today’s commercial smartphones”. “In fact, I can’t see myself in this Ara ecosystem, with many different chipset vendors having to figure out the efficient bridging between their modules and try to have an overall optimized product. Instead we start from already optimized commercial smartphones and build our hardware apps on top of them, into our modular smartphone cases.” Murawski told us that at one of the early Ara developer conferences, he had met several developers willing to swap their bulky Ara kits for a Nexpaq developer kit. “We are doing the same as Apple did several years ago by providing an open infrastructure for millions of developers to build apps”, continued Murawski. “We are not locking anyone in, but we want to have a centralized hardware and app store and provide the physical specs with the right physical tolerances to ensure all modules using our brand are compatible with the smartphone modular cases we develop”. Similar to Apple, the company could strike manufacturing deals, with quality audits, special hardware tests and software quality controls. Nexpaq is already offering twelve modules developed in-house, namely a battery extension, a breathalizer, amplified speakers, temperature and humidity sensors, a LED flashlight, an SD card reader, a USB flash key, hotkeys that can 20 Electronic Engineering Times Europe July-August 2015 www.electronics-eetimes.com


EETE JULAUG 2015
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