Our Modular Electronics Future

by Braden Kelley

THE POINT: Leading electronics companies can lead a movement to future-proof their businesses by innovating updatable products that encourage customer loyalty, sustainability and pragmatic fun.

Creating Consumer Electronics 2.0

It’s easy to blame tighter purse strings for falling electronics sales figures. But it’s not just lack of money that’s keeping customers away; it’s fear of instant obsolescence.

Today’s consumer consideration set has fundamentally shifted. We now want long-term value, not just the latest and greatest.

Yesterday we used an electronic device until it broke or a better one superseded it. We disposed of the old with great dispatch. Brands using a Parallel Model of product development kept us enthralled with a constant churn of new shiny objects and updated versions. Durables were recast as disposable. Sales and stocks soared. Best Buy created a whole new business, Geek Squad, to help us keep up. We wanted new toys, but needed Geeks to show us how to use them. We delighted at every new feature. We also started feeling pangs of “buyer’s hesitation” as Moore’s Law kept shortening product life cycles. Particularly as we started replacing devices that still worked just fine.

Oh, how we loved our first iPod – 5GB of musical magic for $399. But oh, how quickly we tossed our still-working sweetie into a drawer, lured by ever-smaller, higher-capacity, ever-cheaper iPods. As prices fell and capacity increased, however, internal conflict also rose. We could never be sure of our decision to buy or when. Wouldn’t something far superior be just around the corner?

Today’s economic realities compound these past experiences. The consumer technology industry has inadvertently trained us to delay purchases. Though it drove 15 years of unprecedented growth, this Parallel Model won’t hold for the next 15. Lowered components costs will not be enough to spark demand.

What might tempt us to spend? An assurance that we’re investing in technology rather than playing silicon hopscotch.

Manufacturers and brands need to move from a focus on this year’s model to a focus on a whole new model.

Consumers now demand enduring goods we can easily update ourselves. We welcome a new Series Model age of product development.

Imagine how transformative it would be to have an industrial/retail structure where product parts are swapped out [and recycled], where the upgrade is built in, where the form can completely change to answer new needs or aesthetic desires.


It’s not such a new concept, but a return to the long-term pragmatism that skipped a generation. Grandma insisted on products that were built to last; tech-savvy Millennials expect the same. Favored Serial Model brands would reflect their values: respecting resources and sustainability; nurturing networked relationships; promoting self-reliance and utility as the height of style.

Consumers embrace smart series strategies in other sectors. We don’t throw away our cars when a new set of tires or a paint job is needed. We put energy-efficient bulbs and new shades on perfectly functional lamps. We buy the latest razor blades for our enduring shaver. Why not make consumer electronics as easy to update?

Switching to series production requires moving from a focus on design to a focus on the well designed. It’s a long-term view with manifold benefits.

Series Model: Answers both producer and consumer desires for Value and Profit:

  • Creates a deeper bond between consumers and a brand, provided that the producer commits to improve and evolve the technology.
  • Eliminates the waste of a churn-n-burn model, freeing up investment capital for developing huge, category-creating innovations that radically improve consumers’ lives.
  • Generates a can-do dynamic between manufacturer and consumer. Since service people cost more than manufacturing labor, it behooves the manufacturer to make swapping out updating / fixing so easy that the consumer will happily take on the task.

Series Model innovations might include:

  • Swapping out a circuit board like we do memory cards
  • Placing more functionality in parts that can be easily replaced like controllers & remotes
  • Designing for aesthetic/functional switching thru more attachment inputs
  • Creating energy-improving refrigerator cooling unit upgrades that utilize existing casing
  • Making upgrading a 3 mega-pixel camera to an 8 mega-pixel as easy as switching lenses

Activating this Series Model will likely require both producers and consumers to pay more upfront. But these costs should be framed as an economic offset for all stakeholders.

The extra dollar spent on a modular manufacturing schema saves countless dollars on retooling for new gadgets, shipping, warehousing and more. Value-conscious consumers are now ready to see the long-term savings of buying modular products from trusted brands.

The first mover in this space has an opportunity to bond with customers. To cement an enduring relationship with Millennials. And to innovate for this recession in a way that future-proofs its business for decades to come.


Marcus Oliver is an Innovation Director at innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212 in New York. Fahrenheit 212 delivers bigger ideas, faster to market.

Leave a Reply