When LG announced the modular G5 at MWC in 2016, we were all taken a bit aback. Admittedly, there was plenty of reason to hold judgment – it seemed possible that LG had actually done something interesting and innovative with a smartphone that hadn’t quite been tried before, and gadget-lust is an easy feeling to succumb to in the face of something new and weird. It turns out that the G5’s “friends” were basically DOA as a concept, though, and there has been little indication that consumer response to the idea is even existent, let alone positive.
Proprietary pogo pins: yesterday’s technology, tomorrow!
Well, according to serial leaker Evan Blass, Motorola is piling on the modular heap with the next Moto X. They’ll have speakers, batteries, camera grips, projectors, and ruggedized cases [… and blackjack, and hookers]! Basically, the gamut of amazing pie-in-the-sky promises that Project Aravisualized two-and-a-half years ago, but without any of the modular beauty, simplicity, meaningful upgradeability, or consumer-friendliness of that concept, which has proved much harder to bring into reality than some glorified cases.
So, instead, we get some lame-ass 100% proprietary pogo pins on the back of a phone which we will slap lumpy pieces on. Great.
The dream we were promised.
That this non-innovation comes straight from Ara’s original corporate parent seems especially telling (though Google retained Ara after Moto was acquired by Lenovo). The company that took modular smartphones so seriously, as something to aspire to in a daring, complicated, but clearly desirable [to some] and consumer-friendly form is now cashing in on a version of that idea that we quite literally could have built five years ago. Really, there is nothing that would have stopped LG, HTC, Samsung, or Motorola from putting a few contacts on the back of a smartphone and designing an extended battery case, a second camera, a speaker, or any one of a number of potential “modular” accessories in 2011. That Motorola’s new Moto X is allegedly so thin really isn’t the make or break for this concept, though I’m sure they’ll spin it that way (“look, this speaker module barely makes your phone thicker than four checkbooks!”).
The comparative sadness of this, I feel, is best summed summed in this classic Flight of the Conchords clip (head to 0:47 if the automatic queuing doesn’t work).
There is nothing especially groundbreaking about these “modular” concepts, they don’t utilize any particularly exotic or recent technology in their basic premise, and stuff like smartphone speaker cases are categorically not new. They’re also not especially popular because, it turns out, the moment you tell people adding a loudspeaker to their smartphone is going to cost $100, they’re no longer interested in the idea. Surprise!
And that’s what modular designs like the G5 and now the upcoming Moto X really are about at their core: money. This is about companies attempting to upsell you accessories, not make your smartphone better. And it is important to recognize this, because there is a difference between “trying something new to see if it makes our products better” and “trying something new primarily because we think it’s going to fix our products’ awful profit margins.” The takes on modular we are seeing so far are categorically, unambiguously the latter.
The fact that Motorola (Lenovo) has apparently focused on the modularity aspect so intently as to make the flagship Snapdragon 820 Moto X ultra-thin to the point that it will have a smaller battery than an iPhone 6S Plus (an alleged 2600mAh vs the iPhone’s 2750mAh) seems borderline foolish, and unfriendly to customers who don’t want to spend more money just to get acceptable battery life from their smartphone. You’ll likely be able to buy the cheaper Snapdragon 625 version of the phone with its larger 3500mAh battery, but you’re basically being asked to skimp on the processor if you want the better battery out of the box. And neither phone appears to have dual front-facing speakers this time around – if you want better sound, you’ll have to buy the speaker module. I hope the “cash grab” narrative is starting to come into focus here.
How long the modular gimmick will last remains to be seen, though given that it’s just getting started, it may well be another year or two before we escape this unimaginative, uninteresting – if sometimes humorous – portion of smartphone history.