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Modu: Is this the future of phones?

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Interest in the world’s lightest phone was renewed a few days back when Micromax announced a tie-up with Modu to bring their modular device to the Indian market. India might just be the biggest market that Modu is launched in, and its performance here will give us a better picture of the device’s future.

What is the Modu?

For the uninitiated, Modu is a concept developed by Dov Moran, none other than the inventor of the USB flash drive. This achievement of Dov Moran in itself qualifies the Modu concept to be taken seriously. Look what the USB flash drive did to the CD.

Modu is no less a revolutionary concept than the flash drive was at its launch. At a time when phone manufacturers are trying to pack every feature under the sun into one phone, Dov Moran takes an innovatively new approach where almost nothing is in the phone.

To better understand why the idea is so good, imagine your average day. You wake up and while you are having coffee, you check your emails on a tablet device. After coffee, it is time for some heavy document editing so you fire up your laptop. Then you leave for a walk in the park, and take your music player along to listen to songs as you walk. When you reach home in the late evening, slip in a DVD in your DVD player to watch a movie.

Throughout the day, all devices you used had one function in common – processing. And you paid for the processors in all four of these. What if you could pay for just one processor, and then use it for all devices whenever you use them? Just imagine the savings you would achieve!

In essence, this is what Modu aims to achieve. It is nothing more than the most basic phone with a screen. It depends to a large extent to the hub it is docked in. The hub is what provides it extended functionality. So if you slip it into a speaker dock, it becomes a music player. If you slip it into a camera hub, it functions as a camera. Or you could just slip it into a standard phone jacket and have it work as a phone. Whatever you slip it into, Modu becomes the brain of the hub. It performs the processing required by that hub, such as image processing by the camera hub, music output for the speaker dock and so on. In most cases, its screen serves as the display. Hubs such as photo-frames will, of course, provide their own, bigger, screen.

Why aren’t we using it yet?

For all its potential, the device isn’t quite ready yet. This is easily demonstrated by the lack of sufficient “fy”s, as Modu calls the jackets. Micromax launched Modu in India with two jackets, or “fy”s. One is Camerafy and the other is Sportify. The first is a 5 MP camera and the other is a wrist band that functions as an exercise companion. Neither of these is revolutionary.  A 5 MP camera – when most top end smartphones feature 8 MP or more with HD video recording – is barely something to write home about. The function of Sportify can also be easily achieved on any smartphone using a wrist band and an app. More jackets in other countries do exist, but none of them are extraordinary. Modu is still a work in progress.

Will it threaten other smartphone manufacturers?

As things stand right now, Modu is not threatening anyone. There’s little hype or talk about it at the moment. The Micromax launch in India was a dull event with little publicity. But considering the company itself admits the deivce is not ready, it would be unfair to judge it by its current market performance.

So what about five years into the future? Will you be using a Modu phone for everything, like the company hopes? This Youtube teaser for the device shows what the company hopes to achieve. At face value, this is very much a possibility. But there are inherent difficulties. To start with, it depends majorly on third parties to manufacture jackets for the device. All the devices featured in the video, from the laptop to the car stereo system to the camera will have to be compatible with Modu. And one company cannot manufacture all these. Secondly, if a person is just looking to buy a phone, he is unlikely to care about buying all these other hubs. He might already have a great laptop that he doesn’t want to replace simply for the Modu. This makes it difficult to convince manufacturers to make hubs for the device. Third, Modu devices are unlikely to provide enough raw processing power for many applications. However, this remains to be verified by real life tests.

Modu might one day challenge the current breed of smartphones. But it has a long fight ahead of it.

Will it benefit me?

In one word, yes. Especially if it catches on. Because the device itself packs so little in terms of features, it is very cheap. Then you can decide to buy only those jackets that you need. So if you already have a stand-alone digicam that you use all the time, you don’t need to pay for the camera functionality of the Modu. You can simply choose not to buy the Camerafy. And then there’s the customizability advantage. Some prefer a traditional keypad, some prefer a QWERTY keyboard while others want a huge touch screen. With the Modu, you can switch between all three experiences by simply using three different jackets. During every day use, you can insert it into a standard phone jacket with a basic camera, but slip it into a camera-only jacket that takes better pictures when you want to go out and click some pictures. The list is endless.

Unfortunately, we are still a few years away from realizing the full potential of Modu devices. A day when a Modu device will become much more than a phone – it will become your identity. Right now, it is little more than an awe-inspiring work of technology that you can gaze at in amazement. When it comes to practical use, there is nothing that Modu currently offers that other phones (in the same price range) don’t.

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