Category Archives: Week 3

Is Huawei a consequence of modularity?

The connection between theory of design and industry evolution is really instigating to think about how technology is embedded in society. Technology can be the engine of some changes, but can also be a consequence of that. Studying the relationship between economic and technological phenomena is really powerful.

When I was in Japan 3 months ago, I had the opportunity to have a longer conversation with two random Chinese men on vacation there, and both worked for the cellphone industry. One seemed to be the owner of a company which produces very small pieces of a cellphone, that I can’t even explain. The other was an employee of a company that produces glasses for cellphones displays. I started to imagine how many small companies can exist to produce very, very small pieces for this increasing mobile phone market all around the globe?

The distribution of the supply chain of this industry, however, doesn’t show the core aspect of it. How the modular characteristic of both devices and their production can alter the power relations involved on this dynamic? Producing the part doesn’t allow one to produce the whole. The definition of the design and the module and interconnection standards are in the core of the power relations.

In the past, in developing countries like Brazil, we used to criticize our economy for providing orange to developed countries for then, buying ready-to-drink orange juice. How does this differ from the production of small parts for electronic devices? Is this only a move from rural to urban production? If the national industry doesn’t incorporate the capacity for being in charge of the definition of the “visible design rules” –  the architecture, the interfaces and the standards – as well as the hidden design parameters (Baldwin and Clark), no changes in the power relation between developed and developing countries will be seen.

But there are some interesting movements happening. I wonder if the companies that produce iphone micro-parts are the same ones that produce Huawei and ZTE components. Are these Chinese companies unexpected consequences of modularity? Huawei phones, particularly, are so appealing and have so good prices, that governments like the U.S. need to act in other layers, such as market regulation, to control their entrance. Cybersecurity issues are also part of the concerns.


Although I have more questions than answers, there are some tips around us. I just bought a new Samsung phone and it is said to be “made in China”. The same occurs with iphones, according to what I read on this article: Interestingly, the journalist here tries to explain the supply chain of an iphone and where its components are produced. This becomes a very tricky task. Because modules are composed by very micro components, when listing the companies and countries where the small parts of an iphone are built, the list isn’t able to show the preponderance of China. Instead, it seems to show where the modules are assembled (please see the list on the article). This is fascinating. How many layers below the journalist would need to go to have a list that would really explain why an iphone has a “made in China” message on it? I don’t know.

Does software interfaces reveal or hide modularity?

According reading materials and based on my observation software interfaces are designed to hide complexity and modularity in devices we use. I would argue that there is inverse relations between these paradigms – the more complex device by composition of its modules, the more sophisticated its software to hide all complexity and provide users with easier access and utilization of all possible operation. “The decomposition of a system into modules should involve … hidden design parameters.”[1] We also become familiar with this approach through another hypothesis which states that “Modules should be designed to hide their internal complexity and interact with other modules through simple interfaces.”[2]

Another possible method to hide complexity is applying abstraction. “The abstraction “hides” the complexity of the element…”[3] And, here, I would like to mention about socio-economic-cultural aspects of this “hiding” phenomenon. Simplicity of device utilization is very important aspect from marketing point of view. Robots, which are manufactured for everyday house holding reasons, and despite their extreme complexity, need to be very “friendly” and simple to be used easily even by non-educated customers. By 2020 the self-driving cars will be widely used predominantly in developed countries. This sophisticated machines will be operated almost only by few command words to implement their functions and they will be able to interact with customers easily through sound or visual software which are designed to hide complexity of the model. All of these modern devices are dramatically change our life, and, apparently, I slightly agree with technological determinism vision, considering how newly innovated technologies are able to change people behavior, culture and values, at some point dictating us new realities and goals to achieve.

[1] Langlois, “Modularity in Tech and Organization”, 2002, page 4.

[2] Lidwell, William, “University Principal of Design”, page 136.

[3] Baldwin, Clark, “Design Rules”, page. 73.

Modular designs and modular actions

An iPhone is a combination of hardware and software components structured together to work as a small computer. Systems thinking offers an approach to make sense of this combination by focusing on its modular design. In developing the smartphone, as with other media technologies, engineers and designers had to structure its different components as a system of subsystems that could inter-relate to work together as necessary. An iPhone, then, is modular in the sense that it is made up of modules, “unit[s] whose structural elements are powerfully connected among themselves and relatively weakly connected to elements in other units” (Baldwin and Clark, 2000, p. 63), and figuring out what those modules are and how they relate to one another can shed lights into some of its features.

The structure of an iPhone is designed so that hardware and software interact, and so the user interacts with the phone mostly through software. Both hardware and software are structured modularly, which can be explored by going through the steps a user would go through to post an Instagram video.

To post a video on Instagram, I need to first turn on my phone and access the app. For this to happen, an operating system (OS) must be in place to manage how the software and hardware will interact, and this is a first module I encounter as I press the iPhone’s round button, which sends a signal to the OS and turns it on, gives me the option to enter my passcode, and shows me the home screen where I find the app’s widget. The software of the phone is first structured as an operating system that “manages computer hardware and software resources” [1] and thus allows applications to run on the phone.The OS in the iPhone is in itself a module of software, one that is designed by Apple and called iOS.

User interface on Instagram

User interface on Instagram

A characteristic of modules is that, while they serve a purpose in themselves, they can also interconnect with other modules to serve other purposes as needed and as wanted. To be able to do so, they have interfaces (specifications of how to interact with such module). The specifications to interact with iOS are visible only to an extent. Because it is an OS designed by Apple, it is meant to work only with its hardware and is thus closed source. Users can develop applications to run on it by following specifications set by Apple and share or sell them through the Apple Store.

After opening the app, I select the photo icon on the bottom menu, which turns on my camera, select the video option on the sliding menu, which changes the camera mode and turns on my microphone, and film for a specific amount of time. In going through these actions, I am interacting with an array of modules designed by Instagram engineers and designers with the iPhone in mind. Instagram is a social network site that allows users to share one photo at a time with their followers. In itself, Instagram is a module among the universe of social network sites out there, which has figured out that photo-sharing is a key activity for users and designed an app around that concept. As an app, it is software that allows me to take several actions, each one of which can be described as a module in itself. For example, if I view my streamline before posting anything, I interact with a function that connects to the Internet to get data and displays that data to me as snippets in which I see a photo, information on the user who shared it and comments.

To post a video, I interact with a module of functions that connect the app to the camera and microphone and display options for me to capture video, edit it in specific ways, write a description, post it on Instagram and then share it on other sites. The various modules in the iPhone are interacting while I take these actions even though not all of them were designed by the same people and only do so as needed. When I go through my stream, the app does not need to interact with the phone’s camera and microphone, but it does so swiftly when I turn on that option, since the app was designed for the iOS and thus has access to them. All the while, however, it needs to connect to the Internet, for which it relies on the phone’s hardware. For each of these components to work together, they have interfaces that allow them to interact in specified ways, as well as a user interface through which I interact with it.

An iPhone, then, can be described as an interface of interfaces, each of which allow us to interact with specific modules of software that interact with each other through an OS that allows different functions to use the different features of the phone as needed. At the same time, this modular design is structured in a way that lets its modules be open only as wanted. The example of the OS shows that Apple can open some of its interfaces and thus promote innovation, as Lidwell, Holden and Butler explain it can  (2003, p. 136), but it can do so through specific regulations, thus curbing the levels of innovation that can be reached.

Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark, Design Rules, Vol. 1: The Power of Modularity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010.

[1] Operating system:

Modularity – interface and hidden information

This week’s topic, modularity, is the extension of last week’s key concepts – subsystems and black box system. It is unnecessary for customers, users and even developers to learn the details of a complex system, meaning a black box system, a closed system with visible interfaces and invisible subsystems, is what we need. Modularity, actually, provides with us a new angle to probe into the basic mechanism of a black box system.

Modularity is a very complex topic. Asides from design modularity, I have also read some books about industry modularity involving game theory during my undergraduate study, so I resonate to the Mr. Langlois article when he talks about the modularity and externalities.

Here I want to talk about something about Google’s modular smart phones project – Project Ara, though I know that it has been abandoned by Google. Mainstream mobile phones manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, are devoted to centralizing their products. Therefore, we now can find that the new smart phones do not adopt the design such as detachable batteries or physical keyboards. When we talk about modularity of those modern smart phones, it is really difficult for customers to understand because their opportunities of approaching to the modular design cases within a phone have been deprived by the phones designers. Without professional tool kits, it is impossible for us to open the back shell of a phone. However, during my reading, I have repetitively read the story about two watchmakers, one of whom puts together elaborately designed subassemblies of several elements. Obviously, such a design can remarkably reduce the system risk since every part is relatively independent, so the negative effect caused by operation fault can be limited.

Now back to the Project Ara. With modularity design, it is indeed less hazardous for designers to expose the first one or two layers of subsystems to customers.


The Google modular phone with standard modules

As the image shows, customers can customize every module on the back of this modular phone, deciding the layouts of their phones, including number of batteries and types of modules. It is extremely meaningful to those who always complain about the battery life of iPhone or intend to use mobile phones as cameras or handheld game consoles. Considering every module of the phone is standardized and fixed by electropermanent magnets, customers are much less possible to make mistakes when they change the module parts of their phones. Of course, for those who have no interest in customizing their phones, without any modification the modular phone itself already has basic functions as other mainstream mobile phones do.

Another interesting thing is the modularization of the manufacture. As I mentioned above, Google planned to set the standard for its modular phone, so it is not hard to imagine that more enterprises, like Foxcom, will participate in the manufacture process once Google intends to search for a downstream manufacturer. The history of IBM we read this week has proved that a quasi-monopoly can change into a “modularity cluster” as technology develop, but the one who designs the global design rules can hold the initiative, just as Google and Apple do.


standard Google set for modular phone

As for the hidden modularity revealed by interface, I talked about API in my last week’s assignment. Bladwin and Clack present us a very interesting module that reflects the laptop computer design, in which, I think, API serves an important role that connects the part called hidden information confusing developers with the one that developers can understand. Here I just want to use a piece of C code to further illustrate the modularity. 

#include “stdafx.h”
#define SQUARE 64
#define CROP 1E15

int main(void)
double current, total;
int count = 1;

printf(“square grains total”);
printf(“fraction of\n”);
printf(“US total\n”);
total = current = 1.0;
printf(“%4d %13.2e %12.2e %12.2e\n”, count, current, total, total / CROP);

while (count < SQUARE)
count = count + 1;
current = 2.0*current;
total = total + current;
printf(“%4d %13.2e %12.2e %12.2e\n”, count, current, total, total / CROP);

printf(“That is all.\n”);
return 0;

That is a simple piece of code that is related to a famous tale about the invention of Chess. What I want to say is that the header file ( #include “stdafx.h” ) connects the hidden information from the standard C library with the visible code part. And in the visible part, the while loop part serves as a relatively independent part as well. That is to say, modular design can be reflected even in the deeper software layer.

[1]Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010.
[2]Richard N. Langlois, “Modularity in Technology and Organization.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 49, no. 1 (September 2002): 19-37.
[3]Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark, Design Rules, Vol. 1: The Power of Modularity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.
[4]Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Reprint edition. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Magician’s Code: iPhone and Information Hiding

Chen Shen

This week’s reading is fantastic, they give us a clearer view of modular design. One thing is particularly appealing to me: information hiding. It is a broad concept that can apply to many levels.

In this so-called Information Age, information seems desirable. There were companies so eager to reveal information about their smartphone, and let consumers know every high-tech component, every whimsy app, every fancy detail. So their poster goes more or less like this:


But Apple goes another direction. In its early days, iMac outshined PC by its simplistic design: fewer buttons, fewer options, even less right angles-everything with a hint of high tech. Apple hid complexities, hid information, that’s why their posters are always like this:


Isn’t it strange that people don’t want information? The truth is, they don’t. Let’s compare information to freedom, according to Fromm in his Escape from Freedom, freedom is not an experience we enjoy in itself, so rather than using it successfully, people attempt to minimize its negative effects by developing thoughts and behaviors that provide some form of security. So is the case for information, they are useful but not enjoyable, so people tend to entrust it to another agency. No wonder Apple enjoys the word “magical” so much, their self-image is a magician who you can entrust complexity and information with. Consumers become audiences, audiences just buy tickets, audiences don’t ask questions.

And it is totally rational. Let’s take a look at a well-known graph, the hierarchy of smartphone needs.


As human being, we yearn for the freedom to connect with friends anytime, not for a strong and stable signal; we yearn for the possibility to play wonderful games, not for faster GPU or wider bus. One important thing I learn from Design Rules is, except for the desiring output, information generated in lower hierarchy don’t have to bother upper level. So, if we view the smartphone as a module of the hyper-system of “man using smartphone”, it must hide all information within. In the hierarchical layers of iPhone, “information is useful but not enjoyable” still works. While higher layer needs outputs from lower layers, other information is not welcomed: they occupy storage and processing ability. So layer after layer, information is hidden. Making it a highly structured system that represents modularity.

Also, information hidden hinders other companies to take over. We learned from this week’s reading that IBM’s value plummeted in 1970 -1974, due to other companies exploited the openness of IBM 360 system. To avoid IBM’s failure, Apple is trying to regulate a closed system in which they don’t have to reveal the “secret” – magician’s code.


In another way, I think software interface reveals partly the modularity, especially by OS. In the configuration, users get to tweak the complicated “pocket watch”. Though the entries in configuration do not map directly to modules, many of them are still on application or presentation level. But options like Bluetooth on-off, contrast adjustment, battery options, Touch ID configurations are relatively basic in the hierarchical structure and has physical form of the function. Though Apps tend to hide modularity, OS does the opposite.


Another interesting thing I found in the reading, is Baldwin compared breaking apart a complex system as a good/bad carver. It reminds me of a very famous Chinese idiom called Dismembering Bullock, it is about a master cook dismembering the bollox so skillful that the bullock doesn’t notice its demise. The story is a little long I posted at the end of the writing, but if we view the body of the bullock as a complex system, what that cook did is exactly what Baldwin suggested: divide the idea at joints, as natural directs.


Following the procedure of TSM, it seems important to eliminate any interdependency or connectivity outside the box of module. Then emergence is like a ghost to modular design, how to make sure connectivity does not emerge when modules are jointed? Can we try to group modules into “hyper-module” thus to reduce the number of individuals jointed when packaging?


Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Reprint edition. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design. Second Edition, Revised and Updated edition. Beverly, Mass.: Rockport Publishers, 2010.

“Langlois-Modularity-in-Tech-and-Organization-JEBO-2002.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 19, 2016.

Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. Owl Book ed edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1994.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

 Excerpt from Zhuangzi


Prince Huei’s cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm — like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.
“Well done!” cried the Prince. “Yours is skill indeed!”
“Sire,” replied the cook laying down his chopper, “I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years’ practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large bones

Modularity of iPhone and Dawkins’ Biomorphs – Jieshu Wang

This week’s reading materials emphasize the importance and ubiquity of modularity, not just in technologies, but also in social structures such as organizations[i], as well as other fields involving human representation, tangible and intangible[ii], for example, music, art, property right, and computer programs. In short, artifacts are all about modularization. In his The Nature of Technology, Brian Arthur even generalized the properties of technology to the natural world, because he considered technology as the programming of nature rather than something “unnatural”[iii]. Here are some interesting ideas I found.

Modular iPhone

In his Modularity in Technology and Organization paper, Richard Langlois mentioned Sanchez and Mahoney’s theory about the necessity and inclination of organizations that manufacture modular products to become modular themselves[i]. This theory is demonstrated in Apple’s IPhone.

1. iPhone is absolutely a modular technology.

First of all, it consists of two main modules, hardware which is tangible and software which is intangible. Hardware and software also have their own modules, forming a hierarchical structure.

Here is an amazing pdf of iPhone structure with unprecedented details from Newton Graphic Science Magazine, my former employer.

1.1. An iPhone has many hardware modules, such as a screen, a battery, a camera, a serial of sensors, and a motherboard. Each part hides its own components inside and has interfaces to connect and interact with other parts. For example, the camera includes modules like lens and CCD, and it also has an interface to connect the GPU. A CCD also consists of smaller modules, such as a photoactive region and a transmission region.1


Structure of iPhone and its camera. Source: Newton Graphic Science Magazine

1.2. An iPhone also has many software modules. First of all, there is an operation system (IOS), which is the basic module, like the spine of vertebrates. The IOS has interfaces both for consumers and developers. Moreover, there are a lot of applications, each as a separate module, which in turn has many sub-modules. Consider a social network app called WeChat. Basically, it contains several modules, such as a chat module for one-to-one and group chatting, Friends Circle module for sharing pictures and short posts, and a third-party apps module. All these modules hide their inside structures invisible to users. However, APIs are visible to developers, who can plug their own apps to WeChat, creating new modules. For example, a bank could use the API to plug their own app into WeChat, so that the customers can load the bank app to check their account information and even pay for bills without exiting WeChat. If we zoom in, we could see that each third-party application is also made up of several modules, such as UI and database.

2. iPhone’s manufacture process is a modular technology, too.

Basically, there are three modular processes—design, manufacture, and retail. Each module has their own modules. For example, the manufacture module contains the production of each hardware module I mentioned above. Each module hides its complexity inside. For example, a worker assembling iPhone in a Foxconn factory in China might not know anything about the structure inside the battery, let alone how to design a new camera. However, there are interfaces between modules, connecting modules together. For example, the executives in Foxconn surely have contacts in Apple, so that they can sign OEM contracts. These executives and OEM contracts are the interfaces between manufacture modules.



3. The organizations producing iPhone are also modular.

For example, Apple has many individual but interconnected departments, such as industrial design, accounting, human resource, and marketing. So does Foxconn.

The structure of Apple. source:

The structure of Apple. source:

From simple rules to complexity

In The Nature of Technology, Arthur designed a computer experiment with Wolfgang Polak, simulating the evolution of technology. One of his points is that complexity can emerge from simple rules.

This reminds me of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. In the book, he wrote a similar computer program called “biomorphs” to simulate evolution. Given a simple direction and random mutations of “genes” in every generation, biomorphs program evolved complex forms resembling insects, trees, and spiders and so on[iv], just like Arthur’s program giving rise to complex circuits.


[i] Langlois, Richard N. 2002. “Modularity in Technology and Organization.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 49 (1): 19–37. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(02)00056-2.

[ii] Baldwin, Carliss Y., and Kim B. Clark. 2000. Design Rules : The Power of Modularity. Cambridge, US: The MIT Press.

[iii] Arthur, W. Brian. 2009. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

[iv] Dawkins, Richard. 2015. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.