A brief history of customization
Nokia has pioneered customizable phones since the late 90s when the Nokia 5110 was sold with a variety of swappable colored cases called Xpress-On Shells. The cases were water- and dust-resistant and let early cell phone users choose from seven different colors. Nokia continues that tradition today with a number of Windows Phone 8 Lumia phones that offer swappable backs such as the Lumia 520 and 820.
Swappable colors, memory upgrades, and sometimes engraved backings are as far as major phone makers have been willing to go with offering customizations. There's good reason for this says Stephen Baker, vice president of Industry Analysis at The NPD Group. "When a product becomes mass market, the internals are much less important to the vast majority of consumers," Baker says. "I would question why you have to customize [smartphones] to individual consumers since we are currently mass customizing these products already, such as the variety of models that the Samsung Galaxy S4 now comes in."
Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, contrasts the customizability of phones with PCs: "Unlike the Dell model that has plug-and-play options for PCs like swappable graphics cards, with a phone everything is soldered onto one [printed circuit board, or PCB]." Moorhead argues that having multiple PCBs lying around in inventory to cover a variety of possible hardware options is simply too expensive to be practical.
Moorhead's argument notwithstanding, there actually were two companies that did try to sell highly customizable smartphones. In 2008, zzzPhone, an American company with factories in China, advertised phones built with "the same high quality components as major brands Motorola, Nokia, Palm, and Samsung... at less than half the price." The zzzPhone options included an optional GPS upgrade, a maximum 7-megapixel rear-facing camera, up to 4GB onboard storage, and an upgrade to "stereo speakers." You could even upgrade the phone's processor. But a month after zzzPhone hit the news, the company was already hitting production snags, and the product eventually fizzled out.
Next up was the German company Synapse-Phones. In 2010, its Synapse One advertised even deeper customization than the zzzPhone. Synapse-Phones offered a choice of 3G or 4G quad-band radios, Bluetooth 2.1 or 3.0, a 5 or 8 MP camera, an LED or Xenon Flash, and a maximum 32GB capacity SD card slot. The Synapse-One also offered add-ons such as mini HDMI, FM radio, and mobile TV. €299 (about $380). Alas, similar to zzzPhone, Synapse-Phones was not meant to be, and the company fizzled out in early 2011 having never shipped a phone.
Now, we come to Motorola. Could the company seriously be considering customizing your phone's innards? That's what the Android-focused site Android and Me reported in March during one of its regular rumor dumps wherein it dishes on everything it has heard about upcoming phones. The rumor was later said to be debunked, but perhaps the site was dead-on after all. A few days after the Android and Me report, newly hired Motorola advisor Guy Kawasaki posted a YouTube video to his personal Google+ page. The video was an inside look at how Porsche customizes its vehicles for customers, and, in his comment accompanying the post, Kawasaki asked, "Wouldn't it be great if you could personalize your phone like this?"
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