The Modular Concept: Why a Change of Direction Is Needed
Have modular phones failed, is it too early to give up hope on what looked to be such a promising market?
To set the stage, the LG G5 released as one of the first mainstream phones pushing a modular aspect. As LG’s yearly flagship it was priced as such and so were the modular components, at least the few that ever got made. To say the G5 was disappointing would be an understatement, especially when you look at what LG just did with their executives; the phone flopped. It wasn’t just due to its modularity, though that played a huge part. The screen was not as good as its competitors, the build quality was hit and miss, and the overall package was lacking. Compounding this were the horribly named and poorly marketed, “Friends”, the modular aspect to the phone. Not only were these modular components not hot-swappable but they also were expensive, fairly useless, and hard to get ahold of. Although LG appears to be open to supporting 3rd party “Friends”, it appears that the G5 will be left at the party without any. After all why would anyone build an accessory for a device that no one has?
The Moto Z is set to launch with a better thought out, but still disappointing second attempt at modularity. Building on its industry best “Moto Maker” system, Moto and thereby Lenovo, are offering a more comprehensive modular system. However, it seems that Moto is moving towards the same end as LG with an overpriced phone and equally overpriced modular components. In fact Best Buy is already giving you effectively $279 off the brand new phone by offering $200 off the device and a free JBL Moto Mod speaker, hardly a solid start. So why aren’t modular phones taking off, why aren’t they creating more buzz?
While phones like the Moto Z and LG G5 are a stretch to consider modular in comparison to Phone Bloks and Project Ara, they are a fairly good start. This is especially true in that the Moto Z features hot swapping and is launching with a variety of mods and more on the way. Google’s Project Ara generated a large following during its early concept phase and can probably be credited with kickstarting the devices available to us today. Recently, though, Project Ara greatly scaled back its aspirations of the modular phone. Instead of pushing a fully modular system, they are falling more in line with Lenovo, except their phone will be compatible with multiple modules simultaneously. Even with this change, Ara it is still coming and people are still interested, the market it not dead. What people aren’t interested in though are the rather outrageous prices that some of the current crop of components are going for, on top of a $550+ phone. Further is that it appears OEMs had to, or chose to, cut corners on the base device itself in order to fully embrace the modular concept. LG launched the G5 with a poorer performing DAC while offering a top tier one on the V10. While the reasons can be various for this, it is important to remember that the V10 didn’t ship with an optional audio enhancing “Friend” from B&O. It’s also worth noting as well that few in the world could actually purchase and use this module. Likewise, Motorola has sacrificed battery life and a headphone jack to allow the Moto Z to still fit in your pocket, relatively speaking, while rocking the almost required battery extension or the JBL speaker mod to make up for its mono earpiece speaker. In this industry, cutting corners on a flagship is not the wisest thing to be doing. Even good, solid flagships have a hard time making a dent against the likes of Samsung or Apple. This is especially true when you still ask top tier price, which I feel is the key to the problem.
The proposition of a 5.5” phone with a 2,500mah battery is just disgusting on a flagship, but it is much more palatable on a mid-ranger. So too is the lack of a headphone jack or a cheap DAC if the phone was a low-end model. Modular phones make no sense on a flagship. When buying a flagship you should be left wanting for little, the phone should ship with the best of the best, not needing a module to fix things. The module concept makes far more sense on an affordable phone, a phone where cut corners are to be expected. Reviewing the Moto G4 has taught me a great deal about the midrange market. As I will bring out in my incoming full review, the G4 cut a few corners to offer a comprehensive mid-range package. I would love to have the opportunity to make up for some of the shortcomings that affect me, personally. The ability to pay $50 to enhance the camera, attach a proper DAC, or the ability to put on NFC and a larger battery are options I would very seriously consider because after all I only spent less than $200 on it.
“With the right price, when paired with the right advertising and marketing, modular phones start to make sense.”
Project Ara and Google’s target pricing is still undetermined, but we do know that Google was targeting a $50 price point for the old base phone. While they have reversed course a little on what the base consists of, we can see that price was of primary concern for the phone and modules. It would be reasonable to expect that focus to continue when the phone comes to market. Google could absolutely ship a $600 flagship level Ara phone next year, however, it is my thought that we will instead see a reasonably equipped $300 to $400 one. This is where I feel the modular concept will flourish. With the right price, when paired with the right advertising and marketing, modular phones start to make sense. People generally hate spending $700 on a phone, it’s a fact, but spending another $70-$300 for what amount to little more than accessories especially when some are pretty much required, is deal breaking. Combine this with lackluster reviews and comments due to the corners that were cut to make the modularity a viable feature and it is a one-two punch for any OEM that attempts it, as the results are already showing. All indications lead us to believe that LG rushed the modular concept by sidestepping things like hot swapping and even making sure the modules were FCC approved before they announced them. Lenovo seems to have put together a better starter package, but when you look at the corners that were cut on the phone and the prices they are asking for the package it’s hard to imagine it having any success, not to mention the carrier exclusivity issue.
Google has taken its time and has adjusted its product, for better or worse, and looks to be the final stand for modular phones, the last huge effort to kickstart this market. But regardless of how well Google designs the Ara, the target for modular phones needs to be mid to low range if it is to have any sort of commercial successes. Modular phones aren’t dead they just need their target to be readjusted. Like any new ideology, it takes time to fine tune and hone exactly the market to be aiming for and work out all the kinks. It is still far too early to write off the modular concept based off a few very rough starts with the biggest, and most experienced player still to show its hand. Help us Google-kenobi, you’re our only hope…