Opinion: Will A Truly Modular Phone Ever Be A Reality?

Earlier this month, it was reported (then confirmed) that Google had shelved their modular smartphone ambitions in Project Ara. This came as a bit of a surprise, seeing as Google was hoping to put out the first commercial units early next year, and had a slew of partners on board to create modules for the device. Not to mention developers would be getting their units this fall. It also shows that as Alphabet, the company is really beginning to reign in on their outlandish projects and hoping to make something that will actually make money for the company - this is also what has led to many exits among other projects under X, like the Self-Driving Car Project. But back to Ara, this news leads us to wonder, are modular phones still ahead of their time? Are they ever going to take off? Are modular phones ever going to be a viable commercial product?

Google isn’t the only one to have tried their hands at a modular smartphone. LG and Lenovo both tried it earlier this year with their own flagships. The LG G5, that was announced at Mobile World Congress in February, was a somewhat modular smartphone. The bottom of the phone could come off, and you could swap out the battery, and also add on a battery grip, or a DAC for better audio (that’s about as far as LG went with modularity). Lenovo did a better job, but made it a bit gimmicky. Using connector pins on the back of the Moto Z, you can add Moto Mods onto the back of the device to extend its functionality. One of the Moto Mods would add speakers, another was a Pico Projector, one was an extended battery and the newest was a Hasselblad camera.

These offerings from LG and Lenovo are commercially available - although the LG G5 is more widely available than the Moto Z line. But they haven’t done exceedingly well. With Lenovo, they kind of shot themselves in the foot, by giving the devices a timed exclusive with Verizon and keeping the Moto Z Force as a Verizon exclusive forever. Meaning that there would be a much smaller market of people actually wanting to buy the phone. In fact, even now, two months after the Moto Z and Moto Z Force launched at Verizon, the Moto Z is not available in many areas (but it is available or will be soon, in Europe). But many reviewers have stated that Lenovo did the better job when it came to modularity. Not only did the Moto Z look better, but it worked a whole lot better. Allowing users to slap on a Moto Mod onto the back of their device without having to reboot the device. Which actually became a pretty big feature for Moto Mods on the Lenovo Moto Z family of smartphones. This is because with LG, you have to pull out the battery which means you are forced to reboot the phone. Even with Project Ara, you could hot swap items like the camera, without needing to turn off the device then turn it back on.

The modular phone, it’s a dream that every technology nerd would love to have become a reality. Imagine being able to swap out the camera on your smartphone for something else that’s better? Or swapping out the RAM for more RAM, same for the storage? All this without having to buy an entirely new smartphone. That was basically what Google was promising or at least hoping to achieve with Ara - although some of these things wouldn’t be swapped out, like the RAM and processor. And that’s due to how the phone would be built. Otherwise the phone would be much, much larger than it needed to be. This means you can buy a shell as your smartphone and just basically replace parts every so often, as you need. This includes the battery, you’d be able to swap it out instead of needing to plug in your phone. It would definitely cut down on electronic waste, which is starting to become a pretty big problem in countries across the globe. In fact, Japan is going to use e-waste to create the medals for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which is a creative way to get rid of all that electronic waste that’s sitting around.

Now the dream isn’t dead. It’ll likely still happen, but it won’t happen in 2016, and probably not 2017 or even 2018. These things take time. While Google (and before being sold to Lenovo, Motorola) has spent a ton of time working on this, it doesn’t mean the time was wasted. As Google may license Ara out to other companies to work on the dream of a modular smartphone. The modular smartphone is doomed to fail, for now. It won’t always be like this, however. Things like this take time to mature and get better. It’s also a case of trial and error. The more things like this are tested, especially in the real world, the more issues that will crop up and companies can work to fix them, before making them widely available. But yes, modular smartphones are a bit ahead of their time. Much like Dell was ahead of the Phablet time with the Dell Streak 5 - which when you look back at it, it wouldn’t have been a phablet in today’s world. Then a year later, Samsung came out with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note and created the Phablet market and has owned it ever since. When it is a modular smartphone’s time, whoever does it, is going to likely take the space and own it for the foreseeable future. As Samsung did with the Phablet space in 2011, all the way til 2016 with the Galaxy Note 7.

A commercial version of Ara may never actually happen, now that Google has cancelled its Ara plans. But we will likely see a commercially available modular smartphone before this decade is over with. Now it may not be from Google, or even Lenovo. But there are other companies working on this same exact concept. Including Fairphone, Nexpaq, and Puzzlephone. Although Puzzlephone did recently announce that they are delaying their first units, due to funding slowing down and thus affecting their work. The commercially available version may also be much more limited than what PhoneBloks (the company Motorola bought and turned into Project Ara under X) promised in their opening video announcing the product a few years ago. It may be something a bit closer to full modularity than what Lenovo has currently, but they may be the closest ones to offering a commercially available modular smartphone right now.

Many are sad that Project Ara is dead, but it’s not forgotten, and the modular smartphone is far from dead. As smartphone makers search for ways to innovate their smartphones, modularity is likely going to be a pretty big focal point for a lot of manufacturers. As we’ve already seen in 2016 and will likely see more of in 2017. However, at this point, it’s pretty obvious that Lenovo has done the best job at providing modularity to their smartphones, and that’s without even using the word “modular” to describe Moto Mods for the Moto Z, Moto Z Force and the Moto Z Play, which is pretty impressive to say the least.

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