CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Phones

The world just isn't ready for modular phones

Google and LG couldn't make modular phones work. What does this mean for Lenovo as the only one left trying?

Google

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 Motorola 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 (along with the tenuous future of the only recently announced Essential Phone), 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.

13997518435210090631646659269662998649149o-1.jpg

Phoneblok pieces snapped on like Lego bricks.

Phonebloks

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.

lg-g5-module.jpg

The G5's chin can detach, allowing other accessories (like a camera grip) to connect.

James Martin/CNET

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, 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.

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.

moto-z-mods-05.jpg

CNET editor Scott Stein has a pocket full of Mods.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"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. 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."

ara-module-flip-gif.gif

A prototype Ara camera module.

Sean Hollister/CNET

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.

google-io-2015-project-ara-5696.jpg

Former engineering lead at Google ATAP Rafa Camargo holds up an Ara prototype in 2015. He is now at Facebook.

James Martin/CNET

Last man standing

With LG and Google out of the picture, Lenovo's Motorola phones are now left at the helm. But the future is tenuous. From its launch in June to November 2016, Lenovo sold 1 million Moto Zs and anticipates to sell 3 million the first year. Though that's impressive for the company, that pales in comparison to say, Apple selling 74.5 million iPhones during the last quarter of the same year. (Of course, Apple and Samsung are companies of differents calibers, and are bound to their own set of high expectations.)

Demand for modularity is still niche, too. Estimation for total market dedication for this segment is less than 1 percent for the next two years, according to Nair. In addition, Lenovo's sales stats don't take into account how many Mods were actually sold. This number is known as an attach rate, and it stands for the number of units sold of an accessory device in relation to the primary product.

"If you were to get a 10 percent attach rate of an accessory, you'd be pretty happy because there's a good profit," said Hyers. "I suspect these modular components for Moto Zs are in the low single-digit percentage wise." (When asked about attach rates, Lenovo said it didn't share sale numbers specifically.)

Despite the grim forecast, Lenovo has 12 new mods planned for this year and doesn't intend to slow down. (Then again, LG and Google said the same thing before.) And while it's normal that phone sales spike and then gradually decline after launch, Moto Z sales have picked up over time.

modular-phones-2342-001.jpg

Will modular phones ever find mainstream success?

Josh Miller/CNET

"We're seeing a lot of success with consumers," said John Touvannas, director of the Moto Mods program. "People are using them, they really love the Mods."

Lenovo attributes this to the fact that its Mods are plentiful and easy to use. Motorola chairman and president Aymar de Lencquesaing said during an interview in February that consumers have no tolerance for troublesome design.

"Some of the devices that came to market were not hassle-free," he said. "What makes the [Moto Z] product work is snap on, snap off. That's what makes a difference." He also said that every other customer who bought a phone purchased a Mod.

Partnerships with well-known companies like JBL and Incipio also boost the Mods' apparent staying power for now.

moto-z-play-9364-008.jpg

The Moto Z Play attaching to a camera Mod.

Josh Miller/CNET

Moreover, Lenovo isn't quite alone in its undertaking. A small Netherland-based company named Fairphone, which puts emphasis on fair labor practices and device longevity, recently released its Fairphone 2. It has swappable parts including display, camera and battery modules. You can purchase spare components for repair too.

More recently, the creator of  Google's Android mobile operating system, Andy Rubin, introduced a phone called the "Essential Phone" that has a magnetic connector on the back that attaches to a 360-degree camera. But it's not yet known if Rubin plans to develop more accessories, or if the phone will take off with customers. 

Still, Lenovo remains the biggest name behind modularity. Though it may not have sales as big as Apple or Samsung, its Moto Zs serve as a differentiator.

The chances are low that more companies will circle back to explore modularity anytime soon. After all, people often bemoan the lack of smartphone innovation, but when companies experiment, their novel ideas often flop or fold. Meanwhile, the same iteration of familiar handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Apple iPhone 7, continue to be wildly successful.

But having that much flexibility and control over such a personal device will never cease being appealing. And while, for the most part, it looks like the sun is setting on modular phones, it's hard not to admire those faithful to the modular pie in the sky.

"We're committed to the whole platform," said Touvannas. "We're still here and we're huge believers of what we built."