This year, we've seen two flagship smartphones sold or discussed as being "modular" in one form or another. First, LG introduced the G5, which can have a number of replaceable units fitted. More recently, Lenovo unveiled the Motorola Moto Z family of devices, which feature a magnetically locked expansion port for adding third party modules. Because customers can add an additional module to the device, so these become modular smartphones – except clever as the G5 and Moto Z are, they are not the same as the Project Ara modular device that has some corners of the technology world so very excited.
First, let's recap on the LG G5 and Moto Z's expansion abilities. It's too soon to talk about Moto Z sales figures, but the LG G5 has struggled. The device itself has some interesting features, from the dual camera set up, the screen-in-a-screen always-on display technology and of course LG's touted modular design. Unfortunately, the G5 fails in two points when it comes to using this modular functionality. First, there are only a few modules available around the world. For the North American market, the only module available is the LG Cam Plus; the hi-fi B&O audio module is unavailable. Second, there have been some concerns raised over the fit and finish of the module unit and end cap of the G5. And of course, LG's "modular" tilt is simply about adding more functionality to the device rather than replacing functionality. Customers won't be able to swap out the Snapdragon 820 module in a few years when it's looking somewhat pedestrian, which given how manufacturers like to blame the "user experience" and "device RAM" as rationales for not updating device software, the LG G5 has a limited life (it will likely be supported by LG for another eighteen months).
Yes, customers can replace the LG G5's battery, which is the only truly modular part of the device. Depending on how the device is being sold, claiming that it is a module smartphone because customers can buy an additional accessory, which only works with the G5, to install into the device, is wrong. It could dissuade customers from looking at another module device going forwards, but perhaps not if Lenovo have anything to do with it! Lenovo's Moto Z appears to solve the build quality issue of adding modules but it's too soon to tell how well the device is selling. Nevertheless, it too is unable to have core components replaced and customers are stuck with Motorola, or Lenovo's, decision to base software updates on the age of the processor and RAM module. Still, both the LG G5 and Motorola Moto Z have one big advantage over the Google Project Ara device: they're ready and available. Project Ara has been delayed several times now and is currently scheduled to be out in 2017, after originally being promised in 2013. The Project Ara technology was shown in 2014 and 2015 as prototypes, with the promise of the devices being ready by August 2015. The devices were delayed again until 2016 and now 2017. Although we are expecting a developer version later in the year, this is a deadline that may well fall by the wayside as Google works to iron out the kinks in the modular smartphone design.
Project Ara should be considered a "real" modular smartphone device, because the majority of components will easily be replaced – from the screen, to the processor, to the memory units, to the camera and even the battery. The framework or chassis may also be replaceable, perhaps to allow different sized screens and batteries to be mounted. The device is forecast to be as upgradeable as a desktop PC and in this market, anything and everything can potentially be replaced. So too is the software as Microsoft Windows and the various LINUX distros aren't compiled for a particular device model. This has repercussions for how Google will structure the software for the Project Ara device family. How will software versions and updates be determined? Presumably they will they be based on the system-on-chip and RAM module picked for the device, but what if different communications modules are made available? Some of the issues to be resolved with the modules is how device drivers will be kept up to date.
Nevertheless, whilst the LG and Motorola efforts are not in the same class of device as we hope to see with the Project Ara devices, they are perhaps setting the scene and getting (some) customers used to the idea of being able to expand our smartphones with additional functionality. We have a long way to go before Project Ara is complete and many questions to be answered. Tech savvy customers may love the idea of an expandable and modular device, as it could mean spending less on keeping a smartphone contemporary over a number of years but this will depend on Google (or whoever) keeps the software up to date. I do not believe that the LG G5 has struggled to sell because it has been labeled a modular design: the recent LG executive reshuffle is not down to just the G5 but to LG's 2016 range of devices not selling so well. It's possible that the G5 is simply losing to the Samsung Galaxy S7 family, not because it is a poor 'phone but because the Galaxy S7 is perceived as being a "better" device. Customers are not interested in upgrading their existing smartphone hardware beyond the two year equipment installation plan, perhaps because there has been no alternative.