When modular smartphones were first introduced it seemed like a dream come true for many consumers, these phones gave their users the option to completely customize their devices according to their personal preferences. The idea was that you can mix and match components to supercharge your phone, customize the feel and look of the phone, enhance battery life by adding more batteries and upgrade your camera.
All these features sound extremely interesting and major companies like LG, Google and Motorola announced their own models of modular smartphones in 2016. However, modular smartphones disappeared as quickly as they had came as none of the models fared well in the market. Google has cancelled its Ara project indefinitely without providing any specific details.
LG G5 had the option of adding or removing modules at the bottom of the device but it has been called a failure by experts an even by LG itself. The company completely abandoned the idea of modularity with the introduction of the G6.
Motorola on the other hand has not give up on its Moto Z in which modules can be snapped on the back, however, the small amount of sales prove that it was not a success in shape or form.
When it was first introduced modularity was considered one the most exciting concepts regarding smartphone, so why did it failed?
The popularity of the modular smartphone was based on five major benefits customization, future-proofing, expandability, cost saving and repairability. Let’s look at these factors one-by-one and see if they actually provide any extra benefit.
For most of the android or PC fanatics the option to really fine tune their devices is of utmost importance and for these consumers customization is a great attraction. But if we look at the history we find out that a large majority of the consumers don’t have any interest in customisation and do not care about it.
We live in a world of brand and trend conscious people and they want to have exactly the same stuff as others have. We can see this trend when it comes to best selling products of different brands. Most people want a black Samsung Galaxy or a grey iPhone or a silver MacBook and most of them do not even change the default settings of these devices.
The idea behind future proofing is that consumers don’t have to buy a completely new phone just to upgrade a single component. On paper the idea works just like PCs where users can upgrade their systems themselves, if someone wants a stronger CPU or faster storage they can just buy new components and change the older ones.
But it is not the same when it comes to smartphones as the devices need to be much more compact and integrated, modular phones do not have the option to change the primary components of the phone like the CPU, motherboard, RAM, GPU, antenna and even the display. This means that in reality they are not future-proofed.
Expandability means that users can adjust the features of their phones according to the situation they are in, for example if you want to take pictures add a camera module, if you want to watch a movie add projector module and for music add speaker module. Almost all companies focused on this aspect when it came to advertising.
However, in reality you do not need all these extra modules as you can already expand the featureset of your phone without adding any module. External peripherals do the same job and they can also be used with other devices and not just your phone. Bluetooth speakers can provide better sound quality, to improve battery life use a power bank or buy a phone with replaceable batteries. Almost all scanners and cameras can be connected with your phone via bluetooth or WiFi so you don’t need to make your phone bulky by adding extra modules for these purposes.
Cost saving is feasible with modular PCs which do not need to be power efficient or compact, two features that can make and break any smartphone. That is why modular phones do not have the option to change the core parts so that the phone could remain lightweight and sleek. Modularity actually increases the cost of the phone as it features an extra layers of rails, pins, connectors, magnets and more driving the cost up.
This is the feature of modular phone that makes the most sense as you can repair the phone yourself, if any of the components is not working you can just replace it. However, most people are not willing to pay the extra price and don’t want a more bulky phone. The problem of not having the option to change core components also persists here.
For an average user a modular smartphone is thicker, clunkier, less attractive and more expensive than their usual phones. This is the major reason why modular smartphones did not succeed as most users are more interested in features like premium designs, waterproofing and sleek design.
Even the lead designer of Google’s Ara project Rafa Camargo said: “When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there. To always work and to be consistent.”
This makes it quite clear why modular smartphones failed to capture the imaginations of the users. Major players like Apple and Samsung have not developed a modular phone and instead have focused on developing a totally new smartphone every two years.