Why modular phone failed

Everyone has a different demand for a smart phone besides the basic features like making a call, texting etc. Maybe you need a better camera and more storage space for photo taking, another prefers a faster CPU and larger capacity of battery for better experience of gaming. What if we could provide modules to satisfy those demands with a unified framework, which includes motherboard and screen. Consumers could extent the usability of their phones with new modules, and manufactures could reduce the cost of R&D potentially. With this concept or similar, we saw modular phone projects emerged.

One of earliest and most famous among modular phone projects was Google Ara. Though Google acquired some patents related modular phones from Modu, this concept didn’t go viral until 2013 when Motorola, which was acquired by Google in 2011, announced Project Ara publicly. The project was intended to provide modules, such as CPUs, batteries, cameras, and other specialized parts, and so-called “frames” which the modules attached to. If this went well as it planed, users could upgrade their phones with new capacities and add new features without purchasing an entire new phone. A near-working prototype of an Ara smartphone was presented but froze on the boot screen and failed to boot completely at Google I/O 2014. Later in 2016, the project was revised and has been cancelled. Today, only Fairphone 2, LG G5 and Moto Z could fit minimally the concept of a modular smartphone with extremely limited modules available on market.

This concept was shiny and accumulated a large number of fans. Why it failed so quickly?

The concept of modularity might borrow from DIYing a computer. Just like you don’t need to buy a whole new computer when you need to upgrade or add a component, such as a faster CPU, a better graphic card, a larger storage, more memory. For a computer, you could simply buy it and replace the old one because all components are designed with high integrity, easy to be installed and replaced, and most importantly, low compactness inside a computer case.

Unlike a computer requires a low level of compactness, mobile phones need it as one of the most important feature. Some noticeable technical difficulties and dilemmas were pushing the project to be quixotic. Such as the connectors of modules need to be strong enough to reach a certain stability with adequate bandwidth and durability, they have to be large enough to have sufficient structure strength to meet this requirement. But bigger connecters increase the whole size of modules, which creates a dilemma of compactness. New hardwares will also cause issues as well because of the new protocol and hardware parameters. You can make an analogy between modular phones and DIYed computers. Obviously, every particular type of hardware can support other kinds of hardwares in its generation. Neither too old nor too new hardwares can be used due to the compatible issues. This is also true for smartphones. Not to mention that smartphone components change more drastically to meet compactness requirement. Technical issues are inevitable in the process of developing, which might not be fatal, but failures on the market passed the death sentence of it.

If technical difficulties were the only problem, it still had a big chance to win a fraction of the market and then expanded its market share, because engineering is a progress of compromising, and no phone would be perfect when it hit the market. One of the biggest highlight of modular smartphones was its capability of adding or enhancing features to it by using different modules, but, in fact, you can expand a phone with these features as well without using any modules. A bluetooth speaker could enhance the quality of the build-in speaker, a camera plugged in an usb or lighting port could significantly improve your experience of photo taking and filming. If battery is the one you concern, a power bank may be even a better choice than a module. Accessaries could be even cheaper than modules because they use standard ports and protocols, an accessary could be used not only on a particular model, also be available on a wide range of phones which support the same port and protocol.

Ara lead engineer Rafa Camargo once said “When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent. Our initial prototype was modularizing everything…just to find out users didn’t care.” This is awkward, because no matter how good your product is, you can’t sell to someone don’t care it. I think this is the death penalty of the project.

The concept of modular smartphones was great, but it lacks concerns of the degree to which the modularity should be. Also, a great concept doesn’t guarantee anything besides the concept itself. Technological feasibility, matureness, acceptance and etc. should be considered as well. Beside pure technique issues, those difficulties need to be revised meticulously to address whether they are critical or trivial, then they have to be solved in fast speed within reasonable cost. A product is the ultimate form which is presented in front of a customer, before actually starting “innovation”, a good market, cost and product analysis will never be peripheral. In the end, you may only have heard once about teaching customers in commercial history.