2016 was supposed to be the year modular gadgets caught on. Phones like Google's Project Ara, the LG G5 and the Moto Z promised to let you upgrade your phone just by snapping on new parts. Intel's Thunderbolt 3 port paved the way to turn a thin laptop into a beefy gaming PC just by plugging in an external graphics dock.
But several companies have already abandoned or scaled back their modular plans, assuming that we don't actually want what they have to sell. Project Ara was axed, with key team members migrating to Facebook. LG has given up on modular phones entirely, telling CNET that customers (and cellular carriers) weren't interested in the idea. And no one has yet built an inexpensive, broadly compatible external graphics dock for Thunderbolt-equipped laptops.
What does any of this have to do with the new? It could be the last, best chance to prove people actually do want modular gadgets -- or the final nail in their coffin.
The Nintendo Switch is a portable gaming system that uses modular parts to transform. Snap on a pair of controllers and pick it up like a gamepad, or snap 'em off to use as wireless motion controllers. Drop the tablet into a dock to connect it to your TV like a full game console, and snap the two tiny controllers together into a bigger gamepad that charges their batteries at the same time. Cool, no?
While that may sound like a bold new idea, it's actually a lot like Nvidia's Shield tablet from 2014, or the Razer Edge tablet from 2013, each of which let you buy an optional gamepad, dock and cables so you could use them with a TV as well.
Here's the key difference: The Nintendo Switch comes with everything you need in the box.
Unlike most modular gadgets (including every single one I mention above), you don't need to buy the parts separately. For $300, £280 or AU$470, it comes with everything you need to transform the Switch into each of its modes. It's the smartest thing Nintendo could have done, and a little surprising considering Nintendo is the company that stopped including power adapters with its latest handhelds.
Including everything means Nintendo doesn't have to worry about whether you'll actually buy any of the modular pieces, decide how to market them or stock them on shelves. (You'll only need to buy replacements or extras for friends.)
It means game developers can create games for the Switch without worrying about whether you'll be able to transform it into the right mode -- unlike software for, say, the old Wii Balance Board (which came with Wii Fit) or MotionPlus peripherals.
Heck, it might even mean accessory developers can build intriguing modular accessories for the Switch, knowing owners are already familiar with swapping on and off pieces of their console.
It also can't hurt that the Switch is a Nintendo product, which (unlike pretty much every other modular product I've mentioned) will be widely known and recognized around the world.
It's pretty much the perfect ambassador for modular gadgets. But that's a double-edged sword: if the Switch fails, it'll be held up as the ultimate example of how people don't want gadgets with pieces that pop off.
If Nintendo doesn't make make modular work with the Switch, I doubt anyone will.