Dressing up your phone with bolt-on accessories may be the new black.
Lenovo on Thursday unveiled its Moto Z and Moto Z Force phones, which both boast the ability to accept modular add-ons, letting you magnetically attach things like a souped-up speaker from JBL or a miniature projector.
Lenovo is just the latest company to offer modular attachments, underscoring a push by the phone makers to stand out beyond a simple rectangular slab. LG already offers this capability on its G5 and Google's Project Ara promises even more customizable options.
Credit these companies for breaking away from the norm. Phone fatigue has set in as consumers find it harder to get excited about each new device, which less frequently offer game-changing upgrades. As a result, companies are starting to push the constellation of accessories around the phone, whether it's a virtual reality headset, 360-degree camera or an actual attachment like camera grip or extra battery capacity. Lenovo believes consumers will appreciate the move.
"We're different for the sake of being better," said Lenovo Chief Marketing Officer David Roman.
But it's unclear whether average consumers really care about going this deep with customization.
"It's not necessarily an initial reason to buy a product," said Avi Greengart, who tracks consumer devices for Current Analysis. People look at devices first, then accessories once they've committed.
There's also a question of demand and supply. These modular attachments aren't free, and consumers will have to weigh which ones they really want. The initial selection is also limited, although Motorola and Lenovo are hoping to entice developers with the promise of potential funding.
Not the first
Lenovo touts this as an innovation that "will change everything," but LG got there first with its G5 phone. The device, which was unveiled in February, lets you swap out the bottom "chin" of the device with other specialized components like a camera grip with physical shutter button or a high-definition stereo system.
It too talked up the ecosystem of "Friends," or its term for the companion devices surrounding the G5, and the modular nature of the device as a way to shake the industry out of its malaise.
Greengart said he likes the Moto Z version better because it uses magnets that snap on quickly, and doesn't require you to pull out the battery like the G5.
While Lenovo and LG will still face challenges getting people to switch from the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S franchises, these accessories could help cement customer loyalty if they do end up switching. Having mods that you can use on future devices, for instance, means it's less likely that consumers will jump ship.
"If you buy a product and there's an attractive add-on, that deepens your relationship with the product or the brand," Greengart said.
Then there's Project Ara, Google's ambitious venture to create a true build-it-yourself phone. The company plans to introduce a consumer version of the phone in 2017, complete with a plethora of its own modules.
Rallying third-party support
While the initial batch of modules for these devices makes for a nice start, it remains to be seen whether third-party companies are interested in supporting any of these products.
LG said it is working with developers and offering support to create more friends. Likewise, Lenovo Capital and Incubator Group has set aside $1 million to fund the best Moto Mod project by March. (Lenovo hired Ashton Kutcher to come out and pitch the Moto Mod program at Thursday's unveiling.)
Google will undoubtedly use its heft and influence to spur participation in Project Ara, similar to how it successfully pushed its Android software.
It will take a critical mass of adoption of one of these devices to persuade other companies to participate, which unlocks the true potential of the modular concept. Every company will likely have an updated camera module or better speakers, but outside support could lead to the creation of specific sensor modules needed for a niche science project, or a scanner add-on used by shipping companies.
"That's where modularity could have an impact on niche markets," Greengart said, noting it's more of a long-term vision. "Of course, you're not going to talk about the benefit of an add-on that only helps 1,000 people."