Framework could explore modular smartphones and more, hints CEO

Nirav Patel holding a Framework laptop
Nirav Patel, CEO of Framework, started life as a student working on the OLPC project (Image credit: Framework)

In a former life, Nirav Patel, the CEO of modular laptop startup Framework, worked on a project called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) which promised to deliver a sustainable computing resource to every kid at a reasonable price. 

OLPC was a catalyst for a lot of technologies that found their ways in our daily lives - it encouraged Intel to develop cheap, low power CPUs (Atom) for example - and has certainly influenced Nirav's vision of what computing should look like.

Sustainable, upgradable, customizable and open. I conversed virtually with him to find out more about what Framework has in store with us and what trajectory Nirav wants the business to follow, as well as the surprising success of AMD-based hardware, what businesses want from the company, and whether Framework has any plans to go beyond laptop and who knows, revive something akin to Project Ara.

1. Can you give us a brief description of what Framework does and doesn't do?

We build high-performance consumer electronics products that are designed to last, through upgrade, repair, and customization. Our first product is the Framework Laptop 13, a 13.5" thin and light notebook in which every part is replaceable using the single tool we include in the box. We first launched it in 2021 with 11th Gen Intel Core processors. We've since released a 12th Gen Intel Core refresh, a Chromebook Edition, and recently, 13th Gen Intel Core and AMD Ryzen 7040 Series versions. Later this year, we're shipping our second product, the Framework Laptop 16, a 16" notebook that takes all of the great parts of the Framework Laptop 13, and adds upgradeable discrete graphics and a fully customizable input system.

2. Others before you have tried to come up with modular devices (e.g. Google Ara) and failed. What makes Framework different?

One of the core lessons behind Ara and other attempts at modular devices is not forcing users to accept tradeoffs. Ara was conceptually interesting, but ultimately flawed in execution. It was thick, heavy, expensive to build, and fragile, and had to compete with thin, sleek, durable smartphones. Ultimately, that product never went beyond pilot shipments. The Framework Laptop 13 is instead almost exactly the same thickness and weight as a 13" MacBook Pro and is as durable as premium commercial notebooks from major brands. In day-to-day use, it looks and feels like any other premium notebook. The modularity, repairability, and upgradeability are all on the inside. Part of how we've been able to accomplish that is by leveraging fasteners to get inside of the device instead of an Ara-like magnetic attach system. This lets us achieve rigidity, durability, and a competitive form factor, while still enabling ease of access for repair.

Laptops were the first and one of the most important categories for us, but certainly won't be the last one.

3. What sort of buyers purchase Framework products? Do you have any data? How many of them are businesses?

Our primary audience today is consumers, and our earliest adopters tend to be tech enthusiasts, people who are concerned about the environmental impact of electronics, and overall power users who demand greater performance and flexibility out of their computers. We've also been running pilots with a number of small and medium size businesses over the last two years.  What we've found is that in many cases, the decision maker around computing purchases is themselves an enthusiast and sees the importance of what we're solving with our products. One of the core draws for small businesses is the ability to fix and upgrade their employees' laptops easily right on the spot, minimizing downtime.

4. What features are the most requested (by businesses or consumers)? And which ones are in your pipeline?

The most requested features and functionality have been longer battery life and getting an AMD-powered version. We've been able to deliver on both of these with our 2023 product updates.

5. All your systems are x86 based; do you have any plans for Arm-based models? What sort of challenges you may encounter (lack of modularity? size of market?

We have seen asks for ARM-powered models. Today, there are no ARM SoCs available on the market with sufficient CPU and GPU performance to make sense for the Framework Laptop. We have seen intent from the major SoC brands to enable higher performance ARM processors targeting the notebook space though, so this is something we'll continue to track.

6. Framework has been a big proponent of open source hardware. What has been the uptake and what do you plan to do to get other vendors to adopt sustainability (maybe something like OCP for laptops?)

We've opened sourced documentation and reference designs for the main module systems we've developed. We've seen quite a lot of community projects come out of that, from cyberdecks to rackmount servers. We've also started to see some commercial products extend on the ecosystem, reusing Expansion Cards or the Framework Laptop Mainboard. We would certainly like to see more adoption of common module standards, with OCP being a great example from the server space.

7. Framework focuses only on laptops for now. Do you have plans to expand your remit to other devices (smartphones, desktop PC etc).

Our mission is to remake Consumer Electronics. Laptops were the first and one of the most important categories for us, but certainly won't be the last one.

8. You have a sub-forum dedicated to ideas; how much of it is fed back to the main project?

Several of the improvements we've made on the Framework Laptop 13 this year came out of asks from the community. An example is our revamped hinges, which we tuned based on feedback from the community.

9. AMD-based laptops have a much longer lead time than Intel ones? Why is that the case and what are you doing to improve that?

We've seen immense demand for the AMD-powered Framework Laptop 13, resulting in selling out of our first three batches of pre-orders quickly. We're continuing to scale our production capacity to respond to the demand.

10. Are you planning to have more SKUs and models with add in GPU cards (would be lovely for creatives).

With the Framework Laptop 16, we have modular, upgradeable graphics, which has long been the holy grail for high performance notebooks: something many have attempted but haven't achieved. We've solved it by designing our Expansion Bay system to allow modules to extend in depth and thickness, giving us immense design flexibility to handle generation over generation changes in GPU requirements.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.