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Modular phones are here, like it or not

TechCrunch TechCrunch 9/06/2016 Matt Burns

Call me old fashioned, but I like my phones in one piece.

But that’s not the future according to LG. Or Motorola. Or Google’s Ara team. These companies see consumers swapping widgets and gizmos on and off their phone like it’s some sort futuristic communication device. That’s crazy. I don’t like it. Get off my lawn.

Lenovo just introduced the Moto Z with Moto Mods. Want a bigger speaker? Snap the gigantic JBL speaker onto the back of the phone. There’s also a projector and battery backpacks and Motorola is opening up the platform to developers in the hopes other companies will build accessories, too.

Let’s chat about that camera bump for a minute. It’s serious. When the phone is used as designed — that is, with a Moto Mod, the camera bump is minimized, reminding owners that they’d better buy a Moto Mod or their phone will have a massive camera bump.

LG was the first out with a modular smartphone. Small accessories dock to the bottom of the new LG G5. These are called Friends by LG. There’s a speaker friend made by Harman Kardon and a camera pack that adds a physical shutter button to the phone. They work, but these aren’t friends you want to take out on the town. They’re stale and boring.

Google has a much more radical approach with the Ara. Here, most bits of the phone can be swapped out, creating a Voltron of sorts. Need a better camera? The phone can have a better camera. Want your phone to have a kickstand? Slide in a kickstand. Want your phone to have a little container to hold a single breath mint? According to this demo video, that’s an option, too.

As a practical matter, modular phones do not feel like something that will become the next big thing. I can’t lose the camera out of my iPhone. Or my speaker. It’s all-in-one and that’s fantastic for everyone. As for extra accessories, there’s a thriving marketplace of cases, batteries, speakers and more that seems to suggest consumers are happy with the current options.

A standard is needed for modular phones to work and right now that doesn’t exist. The owner of Moto Z cannot use an LG Friend as a Moto Mod. Proprietary hardware is a tough sell in the long run.

But as a gadget, these three devices are a lot of fun to look at. They make me smile with enthusiasm. They offer something new and that’s great, even if this new trend was born out of desperation. It’s hard to see a market leader like Apple or Samsung trying something radical. They don’t need to. But LG and Motorola have been losing ground for years to Samsung.

I once argued that the electronics industry needs to further embrace the idea of the concept car. That is, engineers and designers and marketers need to be given the opportunity to create something wild and then present it to the public. Car companies have done this for decades. It gives ordinary people the opportunity to see into the future.

That’s what we’re looking at here with the Moto Z, LG G5 and Project Ara — concepts of the future. Sure, the companies behind these devices are hoping you buy their latest creation, but trust me, they’re not worth your money. Before committing to a proprietary platform, let the market and companies figure out if modular phones are a viable product that can be supported for several iterations.

Boring advice? Yep. I’m getting old and cranky and don’t like seeing people waste their money.

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