For a while there, everyone was going mad for modular.
A phone with swappable hardware parts was going to be the industry’s next radical evolution. Google demoed Project Ara with its clever endoskeleton frame, LG launched its G5 flagship with a detachable chin that connected with other accessories, and Lenovo’s trio of Moto Z phones had magnetic modules for attachable speakers and image projectors. Together, modularity was going to let people hold onto their phones longer, customize them in unique ways, and reduce electronic waste.
But as soon as the trend seemed to be gaining traction, it ran out of steam. Google closed the lid on Ara and the G5’s lackluster sales forced LG back into the mainstream. With Lenovo as the last man standing, we’re left wondering if mix-and-match phones can ever pick up the same momentum again.
As fun and useful as owning a modular phone would be though — not to mention as optimistic Lenovo is about continuing its Moto Z series — the concept won’t be fully fleshed out anytime soon. From the complex technical hurdles to problems with ease of use, it’ll be years, perhaps decades, before affordable, durable and portable hot-swappable handsets are available and gain widespread popularity. But until that day comes, consumers are channeling their inner Regina George and saying: stop trying to make modular phones happen.
Why was it a ‘thing’ in the first place?
Let’s back up first. The modular phone dream has been around since the early aughts (think Handspring Visor and its “expansion slots”). People had been configuring and reconfiguring their desktop PCs to their liking for years, so applying the same concept to phones isn’t a big jump.
“At its most basic bit, people like to tinker,” said mobile analyst and director for the Emerging Device Strategies Ken Hyers. “The idea of getting a product and improving it… it’s almost human nature to want to take it apart and improve it.”
The concept ramped up in the public eye with Phonebloks in 2013. The brainchild of Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, Phonebloks was a concept phone with hardware parts that could be separated in individual blocks. Its components snapped onto a main computer board, similar to Lego pieces.
Hakkens’ video was a thorough envisioning that captivated the imagination of millions. It currently has more than 21 million YouTube views and received a good amount of press coverage, and his Phonebloks project on Thunderclap exceeded its original goal of 900,000 supporters.
Shortly after, in October 2013, Hakkens started collaborating with Motorola. At that time, Google had already acquired Motorola and was developing its own phone with interchangeable parts under the name Project Ara.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2016. In February, LG unveiled the G5 at the annual Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona. It incorporated a modular-like design that used its detachable chin as an anchor for other accessories, like a camera grip and an analog-to-digital audio converter.
Months later, Lenovo unveiled its high-end Moto Z and Moto Z Force, followed by the more affordable Moto Z Play. At this point, Lenovo was two years into absorbing the Motorola Mobility brand from Google. (Google, however, retained the rights and team behind Ara, under a group known as Advanced Technology and Projects, or ATAP.)
The Moto Z handsets used magnetic pins on the back to connect Moto Mod accessories like an audio speaker, battery pack, camera lens and image projector. While the phones worked without Mods and weren’t fully modular, the modules boosted performance and gave the devices new functions.
By the middle of the year, momentum for modular phones was buzzing. LG held a conference to help developers build more G5 modules. Google announced that it would release Ara phones to developers by the end of 2016, and be consumer-ready by 2017. The company also circulated physical prototypes of Ara phones with central endoskeletons, it tweeted out a new logo, and the ATAP team released a promo video (below), which built up more hype.
With three big-name companies committing to modular, an apparent trend was on. But a few months later, it would all fall apart.
The problem with modularity
Though the ability to snap components on and off a phone sounds simple enough, the mechanical and technical complexity is immense.
All modules have to be standardized, and be able to communicate with one another without sucking up too much battery life (a phone’s most in-demand resource). Money for research and development for these efforts would be costly to a manufacturer, and no company would want to be blamed for a third-party’s module failure or incompatibility.
Finally, there’s the issue of getting people to buy the damn thing.
The testing and certification processes to make sure these interchangeable components play nice with one another is also “time consuming, intricate and expensive,” according to Rajeev Nair, senior analyst at Global Wireless Practice.
“In a hyper competitive market, vendors want to focus on innovations that find immediate traction,” said Nair in an emailed response.
If the components do pass these tests, companies then have to consider the extra cost it’ll take to manufacture these parts.
In addition, the attaching mechanisms have to be durable enough so individual pieces don’t slip or fall out of place. When Ara was under way, Google tweeted out that its phone failed the drop test. Though it was meant to be a joke, the structural integrity of modular handsets is a real concern.
“Every time you use a component to snap on, you’re introducing a point of weakness,” Hyers said. Any section where a module connects, whether it be through a locking mechanism or magnets, reduces the overall rigidity of the phone.
Finally, there’s the issue of getting people to buy the damn thing with the damn modules. This is a big enough challenge for any (regular) phone, sold by any kind of company not named Apple or Samsung. If the product isn’t compelling enough on its own, or the modules are too hard to work with or too expensive, buyers won’t go for it.
“Consumers find it inconvenient to carry more than one gadget in their pocket,” said Neil Mawston, mobile analyst and executive director at Global Wireless Practice, in an emailed response. “It can become a pain if you leave home or work with the phone but forget to take a required module with you.” It’s the #donglelife problem on a larger scale. With more stuff to carry, you’ll have more stuff to lose.
Google and LG calls it quits (for now)
“It was a meaningful test for us,” said LG Chief Technology Officer Skott Ahn during a January interview. “Of course, we paid a lot.”
Ahn was referring to the G5 and the gamble LG played with the G5. By the third quarter of 2016, the device suffered poor sales, and the company reported a loss of $381 million in its mobile business. As such, LG ultimately nixed the concept for a more conventional design in its G6.
In a written statement, LG said it introduced the G5 “at a time when consumers were excited to see a modular smartphone made into reality.” But with the G6, the company “embraced customer feedback” instead, and made a “single all-encompassing device.”
The biggest hit for modular phones, however, came from Google in September 2016, when it was revealed that Ara was put on hold, indefinitely. This wasn’t the first time the project ran into trouble — in 2015, Google planned a trial launch in Puerto Rico only to scrap it months later. The September news, however, put the final brakes on Ara for Google, and it never officially explained why it put the endeavor out to pasture. (Google declined to comment.) Facebook later hired key ATAP members for its skunkwork Building 8 division, but it’s unknown what they’re working on.
For tech fans, this was a huge disappointment. Ara’s sleek design and flexibility represented the highest ideal for modular phones. And it felt like Google was always weeks away from releasing a working prototype to developers. Though Ara never manifested into a final product, it had Google’s clout behind it. If any company could make modularity happen, it’d be Google with its powerful global influence and extensive network of phone partners just waiting to stand out.
But Ara was over for now, and its quiet demise was in stark contrast to the campaigning and energy Google built around the project. In May 2016, Project Ara retweeted a Wired post: “Google’s modular phone is ready for you now.” It would be Ara’s final tweet.
Last man standing