They were supposed to be the future – so why haven’t modular phones taken off?

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It’s a beautiful dream. You’re heading to a gig tonight, so you nip out and buy a camera with a powerful zoom, and hot-swap it onto your phone. The next day, you’re editing a video, so you plug in a bit of extra RAM. Two months later, it’s upgrade time, but instead of getting a whole new phone, you just switch your old battery for a superpowered one. Nice.

Everything about modular phones makes sense – to the consumer, at least. It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s better for the environment. It works better with the pace of hardware development, too: instead of a whole new phone that makes yours obsolescent every six months, we could have a cool new component every few weeks. 

So why aren’t we all using modular phones? 

The first piece of the modular puzzle

The granddad of today’s modular phones was a tiny handset launched in 2008 at Mobile World Congress; not by a Samsung or an HTC, but a little-known Israeli startup called Modu Mobile.

Modu’s record-breaking mobile had basic functionality which could be added to by slipping it into one of the company’s proprietary exoskeletons, known as a ‘jacket.’ The jackets were specialised depending on what kind of phone you wanted – a keyboard, perhaps, or a sporty chassis, a camera or an MP3 player (it was 2008, remember). 

A fully clothed Modu

The phone did reach the market in 2009, but despite a trailblazing concept and the expertise of founder Dov Moran – inventor of the USB memory stick – Modu shut down in 2011.

Moran’s efforts weren’t wasted, though: Google bought Modu’s patents for $4.9m, and its then-subsidiary Motorola Mobility turned them into a little thing called Project Ara.

Ara we doing this thing or not?

Project Ara is probably the best-known modular phone scheme, and had some very excited fans before it was abruptly cancelled in September

Like Modu, Ara phones centred around a fixed structure (an ‘endo,’ short for endoskeleton) made by Google, and third-party modules of standard sizes could then be slotted in to make a phone.

The hardware equivalent of Windows Mobile’s UI

For the tech equivalent of an E-fit, Ara handsets looked surprisingly good. However, despite more than three years’ worth of development, the team couldn’t seem to make it work. 

Ara’s cancellation was met with widespread disappointment, and Google’s explanation of “streamlining its hardware efforts” didn’t do much to sweeten the pill.

Rest in pieces

Ara and Modu are not the only names in the modular graveyard. ZTE showed off a prototype called Eco-Mobius at CES in 2014, but it never made it to market and they wouldn’t comment for this article, rather suggesting it’s dead and buried.

Later the same year came Vsenn, considered a major Ara competitor – until it too was cancelled in June 2015 due to “financial pressure.” 

This was a month after budget modular handset Fonkraft was yanked from Indiegogo for “not meeting trust and safety standards.” Yikes.

There was more than one side to ZTE’s Eco-Mobius

But what about this year’s LG G5? That’s modular, right? Well, kind of. The bottom section can be swapped, but only for a very limited range of alternatives, and the rest of the phone is fixed.

LG explains to TechRadar, “By allowing the LG G5 to physically connect with other modules such as LG CAM Plus and LG Hi-Fi Plus, the Modular Type can transform the handset into a premium camera or audio device. 

“We know that not every user demands high-fidelity audio or precision camera controls; but for those who are passionate about their music or taking photographs, the option to enhance the phone to suit their needs is there.”

Taking the battery out may not be the only thing to kill the G5

That all sounds good, especially as a sort of market test for full modularity – but has it paid off? 

“While we’re confident in the technology, there needs to be a robust audience for it,” explains LG. “Some technologies are ahead of their time and it can take time to attract a significant user base. Whether modular smartphones are the next big thing is still up in the air, so we’ll continue to listen to our customers and monitor usage trends for the time being.”

That monitoring doesn’t appear to be going well, sadly. 

It looks like LG has dropped the modular approach for its next phone, after firing one of its execs for poor sales – the G5 might be joining the graveyard after all.

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