A San Francisco-based startup called Framework has just launched an ambitious project: a thin, lightweight productivity laptop that it claims can be “upgraded, customized, and repaired in ways that no other notebook can.”
Framework founder Nirav Patel told The Verge that the company aims to address his long-standing frustrations with consumer technology companies. Patel was one of the original Oculus employees and has worked for Apple as well. During that time, he says he “saw an industry that felt incredibly broken across the board.”
“As a consumer electronics company, your business model effectively depends on churning out constant tons of hardware and pushing it into channels, and into market, and into consumers’ hands, and then sort of dropping it and letting it exist out there,” Patel explains. “It encourages waste and inefficiency, and ultimately environmental damage.”
To that end, Patel sees the Framework Laptop as more than a product — he sees it as an ecosystem.
The Framework comes with a 13.5-inch 2256 x 1504 screen, a 1080p 60fps webcam, a 57Wh battery, and a 2.87-pound aluminum chassis. Inside, you’ll get 11th Gen Intel processors, up to 64GB of DDR4 memory, and “4TB or more” of Gen4 NVMe storage.
As is the case with all kinds of consumer laptops, buyers can swap out and upgrade various internal parts of the Framework, including the RAM, battery, and storage. The company is trying to bring three additional benefits to the table. The first is that you can also customize and upgrade external components of the chassis, including the keyboard, screen, bezels (which are magnetically attached), and ports (via an expansion card system). If you’re someone who hates dongles and docks, you can select four ports from an assortment that includes the usual suspects (USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, microSD, etc).
The second is that Framework will be selling its own modules in a centralized online marketplace, which is also open to third-party sellers and resellers. The idea is that if your screen cracks or you feel like changing your bezels, you can hop onto Framework’s site to find replacements that are custom-made for your laptop rather than having to search around. Framework’s components are printed with QR codes that, when scanned, will bring you straight to a purchase page for their upgrades.
The third is that in addition to a pre-built Framework system, you can purchase a “DIY” kit of your selected parts, which you can then use to assemble the laptop yourself. The DIY Edition provides some operating system flexibility: you can install “your preferred Linux distribution” on it or your pick of Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro.
It’s a cogent plan, to be sure. But Framework won’t be able to achieve its upgradable, sustainable future just by announcing an ecosystem — it has to actually create an ecosystem that will last. And whether Framework will continue to manufacture modules for this specific laptop model far into the future, or whether third-party partners will pick up the slack, is certainly a question mark.
If you’re any kind of PC enthusiast, you probably know that Framework is far from the first company to try a scheme like this. Intel has given modular computers a shot in the past, to little result — its Compute Card was a commercial failure, and its modular Ghost Canyon NUC (which had hardware partners on board at launch) still has yet to receive any new components. Alienware’s original Area-51m also never received its promised future-proof upgradable parts. Phone makers have tried modular devices as well: Google’s Project Ara smartphone, composed of Lego-style bricks that users could rearrange and swap in and out, didn’t go anywhere. The reality is that hardware is hard to build and modular hardware is even more challenging.
Patel, for his part, believes those OEMs weren’t committed enough. “Other companies, they put it out there, and someone internally decided, ‘Eh, we’re going to focus on something else this year,’ and shut down the project,” says Patel. “This is not something we’re dabbling in. It’s not a side project for us that someone thought was interesting. This is the core of our company.”
“We are releasing new modules, and upgrades, and accessories, and so on to drive the health of the ecosystem, and we’re going to continue doing that for as long as customers want us to,” Patel adds.
Framework will be taking preorders this spring, and the device is expected to ship this summer. Pricing hasn’t yet been announced, though Patel says it will be “comparable to other well-reviewed notebooks.”