Scenario Analysis of a Successful Modular Phone Project

On 15 April, Google Inc held its first of three planned developer conferences for Project Ara developers. The project is still in its early stages, with some of the most important issues set to be addressed in autumn 2014. The project timeline puts the phone’s launch in January 2015, but with things like regulatory and carrier certification, manufacturing and supply chain management, after market support, and OS support for a modular design still in the future, it is impossible to make any forecasts about the project’s commercial success and unit sales with any degree of certainty. What is clear is that any increase in ownership of modular phones will have an adverse effect on aggregate smartphone demand.

Extending the Replacement Cycle

As the pool of feature phone users in developed markets declined over 2009-2013, smartphone manufacturers employed a variety of tactics to shrink the replacement cycle of smartphones to bolster sales. Ever-growing marketing campaigns and carrier-driven initiatives like early upgrades have had an effect, and in 2014 the replacement cycle for smartphones stands at between 18-20 months, well short of the 24-month lifespan of a typical mobile service contract. A successful modular phone threatens to up-end these efforts. As revealed during the conference, the expected lifespan of the phone’s endoskeleton is 4-5 years. The endoskeleton merely connects all the modules which dictate the phone’s performance and functionality, so there is little reason to replace a functioning endoskeleton.

Range of Rational Expectations

Let’s look at a market where the replacement cycle is relatively high, 20 months, and take the lower end of the endoskeleton’s lifespan estimate – 48 months. This gives us a ratio of 2.4, meaning that every modular phone in theory will replace 2.4 smartphones over its lifetime (scenario 1). Applying the same method to a market with an 18 month replacement cycle and allowing the endoskeleton’s lifespan to reach 60 months, we get a ratio of 3.3 (scenario 2). So, based on what we know at the time of publication, we can expect a modular phone to replace somewhere between 2.4 and 3.3 non-modular devices over its lifespan.

Gauging the Effects on Volume Demand

As shown above, the introduction of modular devices in a market will push up aggregate replacement cycles. The amplitude of this change depends on how much of the subscriber base switches to modular phones as this would determine the change in the aggregate replacement cycle. An increase in the aggregate replacement cycle would then cause a decline in the volume sales necessary to sustain the smartphone install base at any particular level. In other words, the greater the proportion of modular smartphones in the market, the lower the need for future replacement devices.

Having established how modular phones could impact replacement cycles in two different scenarios, we can gauge the impact on volume demand. The graph below shows the impact on future demand for replacement devices as a function of the proportion of the user base using modular smartphones.

The Effect of Modular Phones on Future Replacement Demand

Source: Euromonitor International

As we can see from the graph, a market consisting entirely of modular phones could theoretically be 58-70% smaller in terms of volume demand than one consisting entirely of non-modular devices.

Back to Reality

The results of our simplified model need to be interpreted with a great degree of caution. Project Ara devices are meant to be inexpensive and with a correct implementation strategy could accelerate smartphone adoption in emerging markets, offsetting any volume sales declines caused by shrinking replacement sales. There is also a chance that modular devices will not get sufficient manufacturer and developer support to become successful mainstream products, remaining a niche for enthusiasts. Modular devices could be more expensive, especially if they do not get the kind of carrier support non-modular phones enjoy, as they are bound to be bigger and bulkier than non-modular devices. In short, modular phones face a multitude of internal and external barriers to becoming a mainstream product. Even if successful, modular phones will need at least 2-3 years to gain a significant enough share of the market to cause a significant decline in aggregate demand.