After spending some time rooting around https://www.ifixit.com/, I’ve come to see the smartphone as a textbook display of modularity in action. As the Langlois reading notes, the concept of modularity has been in application for quite some time in the social sciences, but the increasing complexity of modern technological devices makes it a fundamental concept to grasp if one wants to de-blackbox a modern device such as a smartphone.
I have a Samsung Galaxy S6, so I decided to look at iFixIt’s teardown guide to see how the various components of this device that has been so central to my life interact with one another. I knew there would be modularity in the overall design of the device, but I was curious to see what form that modularity took, and if I could identify or understand the philosophy behind the form its modularity took.
As an electronics neophyte, the first thing that struck me once they opened up the back of the device was the complexity present. There were a lot of chips and circuits and electronic components that were overwhelmingly unidentifiable to me. But I did see the seeds of what I believe to be modularity. It didn’t look as though all the various components were thrown together haphazardly; it looked as though there was a rhyme and a reason for their placements.
As the teardown continued by identifying the battery and the motherboard and the camera, the modular design concepts of decomposability and interdependency became clear. The former was inherent to the entire teardown process, and the latter was alluded to with the guide’s suggestions of upgrading distinct components of the device without having to obtain an entirely new one. Anyone who has ever damaged some element of his or her smartphone, be it the screen or a button or the camera, and still had the device be functional can thank the fact that it is a decomposable system.
Nowhere was the principle of modular design more present than the motherboard of the device.
All these various components were broken down into their subassemblies, and they all were tasked with doing a distinct function. Clearly visible were the core processor, the image processor, the audio codec, the transceiver, the audio amplifier, etc. Different companies created most of these components, but they come together to create a whole that is worth more than the sum of its parts. I look forward to seeing more examples of design thinking throughout this term.