by Al Sacco

“modu” Modular Mobile Phone Wears “Jackets,” Docks With “Mates” for Customization and Enhancements

Feb 08, 20084 mins
Data Center

A new company founded by the inventor of the USB flash drive has unveiled a mobile phone called “modu” that slides in and out of various “jackets” and attaches to “mates” to add features and functionality, as well as to customize the device.

For instance, if users want to watch video clips on modu, jackets with larger screens can be attached. Or if business users need to respond to a stack of e-mail messages, they can slide on full QWERTY keyboards. And mates, or products with built-in slots for modu, can transform the device completely. A digital alarm clock with a modu dock could be used to display SMS text messages on its screen, for example, or a GPS navigation system could draw a list of locations from modu’s address book.

modu module mobile phone with credit card

The idea is to let consumers modify and upgrade their devices as frequently as they wish, instead of signing contracts that stick them with the same hardware and features for multiple years—unless of course they want to shell out the substantial scratch it takes to buy a new device without signing a new contract. And the device could also help wireless carriers build customer loyalty, as modu users would not need to switch carriers and phones to get the newest, hottest functionality, the company says. Instead, they’d only need to buy a new modu jacket or mate. Finally, modu is meant to spark innovation on the part of both carriers–in the form or new services–and electronics makers–who could make a wide range of new products to work with modu.

The “naked” modu looks something like a domino, and it doesn’t have a traditional numeric keyboard. Instead, it has seven buttons on its face that can scroll through various menus to initiate and end calls. It weighs about 1.5 ounces and is roughly 0.3 inches thick, according to the IDG News Service. It’s smaller than a credit card in both height and length.

The device is a quad-band GSM phone with a GPRS radio and 1GB of flash memory, IDGNS says—though a 3G version of the device is expected next year. Dov Moran, who created modu, will demonstrate the phone at the upcoming Mobile World Congress 2008 in Barcelona, Spain from Feb. 11 to Feb. 14. The company claims modu is the first of its kind, though Japanese cellular carrier Willcom showed off a similar product last spring. modu will retail for about 200 euros ($290), according to IDGNS, and jackets will go for between 20 euros ($29) and 60 euros ($87). The device is expected to become commercially available in the United States in early 2009.

Concept image of a modu music player jacket

One deciding factor in whether or not modu can make a name for itself in the rapidly changing and fiercely competitive mobile space is whether or not it gets the support of major wireless carriers and electronics makers. So far, the company has partnerships with leading Italian carrier Telecom Italia and Russia’s VimpelCom, though no U.S. partners have been announced. Flash card maker SanDisk and electronics company Texas Instruments have also inked deals with modu. Universal Music Group said it will create jackets with preloaded audio content, as well as music-theme designs for jackets. And modu is working with Magellan Navigation on GPS mates, IDGNS reports.

I think the idea sounds very interesting, but I still can’t help but question whether or not the need to carry around additional components to access certain functionality decreases modu’s overall value. If you have to carry a separate bag with a large screen, QWERTY keyboard, a jacket for playing music and whatever other add-ons you may need, the device becomes significantly less mobile. But if you don’t carry all of your accessories, you may not have one when you need it. Future iterations of devices like the iPhone that pack most of the necessary functionality in one single package seem much more intriguing to me.

A video clip of modu in action is available on the company’s website.