Modular Phones, Hit or Miss?

Once upon a time, phones with swappable parts were meant to be the next big thing. And as a basic concept it makes sense, too. After all, we love to customize our phones, whether it’s with apps, cases, or backgrounds, so why not do so with actual hardware parts as well?
But for various reasons, modular phones are having a hard time hitting the mainstream. The most promising version was Google’s Ara phone, which many industry insiders were certain would take the idea of modularity into the mainstream. After all, many companies tend to follow suit with the trends that Google establishes, for better or for worse.
According to BGR, the basic idea behind the project was that “the $50 base phone could be cheaply configured to work in different markets, extending Android’s reach in the developing world.” But unfortunately, the plan did not come to fruition. In September of last year, Google killed the project. Insiders posit that “a combination of senior staff leaving, Google’s austerity drive and waning public interest saw the project shelved … Google took a viral idea, built hype, and then failed to ever see it through.”
Another modular phone failure has been LG’s G5 phone model. After some excitement about the company’s promise of an ecosystem model, The Verge reported in October that “LG will go back to a regular, integrated design for its upcoming G6 phone after a failed experiment with modularity.” Yet another example of modular not living up to its hype.
While some put the decline of the modular phone market squarely at the feet of Google’s withdrawal, it’s not the only plausible reason. Part of the appeal of a modular phone is that because its parts are interchangeable, you can repair or upgrade one part of the phone without replacing the entire model. However, the reality is that phone manufacturers rely on constant upgrades from their customers to continue making money. If buying a modular phone meant you replaced a phone every five years—with a few part upgrades in between, such as a battery replacement—rather than every 18 months as people tend to do currently, that could severely affect the bottom line of phone manufacturers. While it’s a somewhat mercenary viewpoint, it be hard to argue that phone manufacturers hadn’t thought of it.
There’s also the idea that modularity might not be something consumers want. As TechRadar wrote, “At the core of most business purchases is the concept of ‘buy-and-forget’: from laptops to switches, monitors, printers and routers, you just want them to work without having to worry about configuration and finding out where that particular Slice went. Extending modularity, in this case, just makes things muddled.” Perhaps companies are scaling back their modular models because market testing indicates that consumers simply don’t want to work a tiny bit harder to maintain their phones.
That all being said, the modular phone market is not totally dead—at least not yet. Two companies that are working on modularity are Lenovo, which is releasing “Moto Mods” for its Moto Z phones, and Alcatel, whose A5 model has the option for customizable components. As TechCrunch pointed out, both are customizable in the sense that they offer “something more like augmentation than a full device overhaul.”
The modular parts options include customizable back covers, a speaker that comes with a kickstand for propping your phone up, and an extended battery pack. While these companies both indicate there is at least some interest in modular phones still, it’s true that the lack of a major player like Apple or Google isn’t promising for the future of the market as a whole.