Some roller coasters, like El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure, are fun. Others, like the emotional one I’ve been on from the rise and subsequent fall of modular smartphone design, are not. For a while, I truly thought that modular smartphones would eventually be the future of smartphones. The seed was planted from the Phonebloks Kickstarter in 2013 and grew once I learned that Google took on its own modular project in the form of Project Ara, inspired by Phonebloks. Once it was announced that Project Ara was canceled, my enthusiasm for the concept scaled back, especially after seeing other smartphones with modular concepts fall short in big areas.
Fairphone, for example, was the first commercially available modular smartphone. Like many companies who have their sights set on modularity, Fairphone’s main concern appears to be making their phone as eco-friendly as possible by allowing users to easily swap out parts instead of replacing the entire phone, cutting back on e-Waste over time. The concept is admirable, but Fairphone isn’t without its issues. Despite its mid-range specs, the phone is pretty expensive at just over $560. The biggest issue for me is believing that updated modules will be made for years to come, which isn’t to fault Fairphone specifically – it’s just that modularity’s endeavors have proven fruitless thus far. Even big companies like LG have had problems getting the concept to take off.
The LG G5 was unveiled last year during MWC, a time when I was still starry-eyed about modularity. I still consider it a brave move by LG, but clearly not a move they were willing to dedicate to. Despite making it seem as if the phone would eventually support a robust line of modules, ultimately the two modules introduced alongside the G5 were the only two to make it, making the G5's modular concept underwhelming, to say the least.
And then there’s the Moto Z. Admittedly, I didn’t have much hope for the Moto Z for a while. It wasn’t until recently that I started to take it seriously, but only because Lenovo continues to champion the cause. The company continues to take initiative regarding the development of Moto Mods from third parties, and the support they’re receiving look encouraging.
According to the latest Moto Blog, there are some pretty cool new mods in the pipeline for the Moto Z, like the Edge mod that brings flashy RGB notification lighting as well as either a 2,000 mAh battery or wireless charging capabilities. The Edge is just one of several finalists in Lenovo/Motorola's “Transform the Smartphone Challenge”, which Motorola states received more than 700 submissions since the challenge began. If nothing else, we at least know there’s a serious interest in Moto Mod development, which gives me faith that Moto Z won’t just be another fluke from 2016.
I try to remain grounded these days about modularity. I may have been a little overzealous about certain concepts at the beginning, but when you consider just how far smartphone technology has come in so little time, not much seems like it's beyond the realm of possibilities.
Perhaps someday we might still see a concept as complex as Phonebloks or Project Ara, but until then I’ll be keeping an eye on what changes come to the Moto Z in 2017. If Lenovo stays true to their word and Moto Mods are usable from one Moto Z generation to the next, then I think the Moto Z just might remain a beacon of hope and a significant stepping stone for modularity.