Will Xiaomi Be Able To Do What Google Failed To Do With Smartphone?

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Having raised the roof with its path-breaking wireless charging design, Xiaomi seems to have taken modularity as the newest mantra. But on a road with a poignant past, does it have the bearings to come out covered in splendour?

In what has been a theme of innovation from Xiaomi’s corner, it seems that the popular Chinese tech company is now up to working on a smartphone equipped with a detachable rear camera module.

Reports of the Xiaomi smartphone with modular design, which were spotted in discovered patents by eagle-eyed sources, seem to hint that the smartphone could support cameras of all sorts of shapes and sizes.

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And the buck doesn’t stop there, as the Chinese smartphone maker is also up to its eyes in coming out with a smartphone design, pretty similar to what we’ve seen from the Samsung Galaxy Z fold series. In this case, the module looks like it can be attached to the top of the phone for indulging in some selfies. This solution offers an edge-to-edge display with no notch or hole-punch cutout.

If the patents do come to fruition, it would add another pioneering milestone for Xiaomi, should the smartphone manufacturer choose to roll out it out in 2021.

From the finesse in the filed patents, Xiaomi clearly looks to be in the middle of something special, with a view to gathering solutions in modular design implementation by ticking off the boxes in the full-screen and notch-less display. Images in the documents show the rear camera module with multiple lenses that can be removed from and assembled on the top of the device to be used as a front camera, making use of a magnetic suspension for attaching.

The new patent filed at the World Intellectual Property Organisation still doesn’t give out much, but it appears that the camera side of things will likely also include a receiver, a wireless transmission module, among others.

On the other side, the foldable smartphone that recently surfaced on Weibo looks to be equipped with a sizeable display crease running through the middle. However, it is yet not clear whether the patent filed for the detachable camera will be a part of Xiaomi foldable smartphone or still a few years away from being a relaity.

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At a glance, concerns about the phone’s water and dust resistance do come to mind. But then again, seeing as there’s no telling when the company intends to implement the design and launch it in the market, is very much mired in the shadows.

Speculations aside, the design has evoked a throwback to a concept that has a murky past and was much hyped when it was first mooted by Google. Let us look at what transpired at the Project Ara, and what roadblocks their design faced, which could help us gauge where Xiaomi stands with its current vantage.

The Star-Crossed Project Ara

Coming from the shed of one of the world’s most resourceful tech companies, signs of Google’s deeper interest in rolling out a modular smartphone were revealed way back in 2011. Making a slew of focused purchases, the tech giant acquired a hub of patents from an obscure and floundering Israeli modular phone company, Modu, for $4.9 million.

As ambitious as the concept put forward by Project Ara’s team looked, it had its bases in simplicity. Seeking to come out with an evolved concept design, Project Ara wanted to reimagine the smartphone as a series of smaller, LEGO-style bricks. The thought was, to bring to life a device that could be attached, rearranged, and swapped out in seconds. The inspiration came from the high-end PC market, where different components of the computer can be replaced, forgoing replacing the whole package every other year.

The ground-breaking concept didn’t look far away either, considering Google was at the helm of the project.

It appears that Xiaomi’s smartphone with detachable camera is page taken from Google’s project Ara book.

Just to jot down what the people were about to get, Project Ara would have enabled smartphone users to upgrade their smartphones just by replacing a module, no bothersome repairs or buying out a completely new model for every bump. Helping reduce the issues of e-waste, it was touted to be the flag bearer for the uber distinctive smartphones in the years to come.

And yet, when the prototype design was released, let’s just be polite and say the reception it received was merely lukewarm, notches below the reigning flagships at the time.

The reasons were because two familiar foes in cost and technical issues reared their ugly heads time and again.

 After the pilot test of the device, having made many more iterations, the ill-fated Project Ara was shelved because of an inability to put a stopper on the device’s cost and rise above its technical hurdles. Contrary to the project’s original vision, the eventual design did not even allow users to swap out any of the phone’s processor, battery, or display. Fatigued with disappointment, Google ended up licensing the tech to third parties.

Glimpses of the scarred modular Project Ara have subsequently been found in models like the Moto Z3 Play, the LG G5, and the present counterparts in the Samsung foldable series.

It is why the subject of the modular smartphone design brings back echoes of such a painful past. Many a player has tried to scale its peak, yet all have faltered. With the momentum and nous that Xiaomi has acquired through its series of high profile and piquing launches, it does look as though the Chinese smartphone giant could be the chosen one to succeed where others have not.

If the demons do not resurface.

Stay tuned to this space for more updates.

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