The LG G5 looks to be a phenomenal phone. It improves on its predecessors in many ways, or at least carries over a lot of what we loved about the LG G4 to an updated design. And LG is trying many new things, from a metal unibody design that still includes a removable battery to a dual-lens camera system. But the most unique feature is one that hearkens back to an earlier era of mobile computing: swappable expansion modules. (None of us would even be here if it weren't for Visor Central.)
There's just one problem: I don't think that the G5's modules are going to matter at all.
I'll give LG credit: they're always willing to try new things. The LG G2 moved the buttons onto the back; the G3 brought us laser autofocus, a QHD display and manual camera controls. And the G4 went crazy with a Quantum display, an extra-bright aperture and swappable leather backs.
With the G5, LG's trying more crazy things than ever before. But the craziest is without a doubt the swappable base. Pop off the bottom of the phone, slide it out with the battery, snap the battery off and attach it to a new module, and slide that whole bit back into the phone and boot back up. It's an opportunity to add new functionality to the phone without increasing the base price, as LG demonstrated with a camera controls plus extra battery module and another with improved audio chips.
Almost immediately I was struck by the similarity with something from the early days of mobile computing: Handspring's Springboard expansion slot. Introduced in 1999, the Handspring Visor wasn't the first mobile device with an expansion slot, but the Palm OS PDA was certainly the most prominent such device (you know, relatively speaking). The Springboard modules added a range of functionality to compatible Handspring PDAs, including games, reference libraries like the medical dictionaries and language translators, device backup drives, cameras, MP3 players, cellular radios, GPS navigation, and RFID and barcode scanners. It was a diverse and vibrant little ecosystem with multiple third parties producing modules for the Springboard platform.
There's nowhere near as much need for physical attachments to add mobile device feaures as there was in 1999.
It's clear that LG wants something similar to happen with the G5's modules (which still, we should note, lack proper branding), but there's a huge difference between today's mobile device market and that of the turn of the century. For one, there's nowhere near as much need for expanding the functionality of smartphones with physical attachments like this as there was back then. Every reference library and game Springboard module is just an app these days. We've got excellent built-in cameras on every smartphone now (two of them on the G5, actually), built-in MP3 players and GPS and more than enough internal storage, and our smartphones have built-in wireless modems and radios now. Many of the other modules — gaming controls and scanners — have been replaced with universally-compatible Bluetooth devices.
The Springboard modules were also compatible with a number of devices: the Visor, Visor Deluxe, Visor Platinum, Visor Neo, and Visor Pro. The last Springboard-compatible device was the Visor Pro, released in 2001. The next year Handspring went all-in on the Treo line of smartphones and two years later was acquired by Palm.
We've seen no indication from LG that the expansion modules on the LG G5 will be compatible with any future device, and we'd frankly be surprised if they were. The Handspring Springboard worked because Visor handhelds were all roughly the same size and the expansion slots were all narrower than the entire PDA and slotted into the back. With the LG G5 you're removing the bottom of the phone and attaching a different bottom in its place.
It's a more elegant solution thank the clunky Springboard, sure, but it's one that either limits future compatibility for modules purchased with the G5 or hamstrings LG's industrial design for future handsets in order to maintain compatibility. My money's on modules that work with the G5 only working with the G5, which is guaranteed to infuriate any G5 owner that invests in a module or two when the time to upgrade comes. It's one thing for a case to no longer be compatible, but when you've dropped who-knows-how-much these modules and they don't work with your next expensive smartphone, that's an issue. Everything else we use with our phones — speakers, chargers, robot toys, home security systems, etc — are by-and-large universally-compatible. I don't even expect modules purchased for the G5 to work with the eventual G6, and that's a problem.
LG said they're making more G5 modules and an API for anybody to make their own. But who will?
LG says that the CAM Plus camera controls module and Hi-Fi Plus dedicated DAC module are just the first two and that they both have more in development. And they'll release an API for other companies to make their own modules. But who will? And will LG subsidize the cost of manufacturing such a niche accessory?
Sure, the LG managed to sell nearly 60 million smartphones in 2015, but by all indications they've struggled to sell on the high end — how many G4 phones do you see on the street? There's nothing about the LG G5 that strikes me as particularly compelling next to its Android competition, and certainly they'll be buried yet again on the marketing front by the Samsung Galaxy S7. Who is going to develop these modules for LG, given the small addressable market and previously-mentioned future compatibility concerns?
Then there's the question of what modules are we going to see? What's the compelling use case going to be? It's certainly not the camera module — the extra bulky block on the base of the phone with awkward physical controls will appeal to few. Maybe somebody will make a better version of it. The Bang & Olufsen co-developed Hi-Fi Plus module seems interesting, but as the many cheap Apple earbuds and overpriced Beats headphones you've no doubt seen wandering around in this world can attest, dramatically-better audio quality is not a pressing concern for most potential buyers. There's certainly interesting potential here — maybe a super-high-end camera module or an extended battery or a better speaker or physical gaming controls — but it's a tough sell.
The LG G5 is LG at its most LG. They're throwing in everything — kitchen sink included — and hoping something will stick.
That sell could potentially become even harder when you factor in the price of these modules. Which is to say that we have no clue what the price will be. LG's Frank Lee (Director of Mobile Communications) told us that they're aiming to ensure that the modules will have a "reasonable" price, but that's still open to interpretation. Reasonable to what the average consumer will expect something like this to cost? Reasonable for the technology that has to go inside them? Reasonable for anybody to turn a profit on them? It's worth noting that there's a minimum level of technology that will be required in any of these modules — at a bare minimum they'll need to include a USB-C port, loud speaker (since LG opted to include that on the removable portion of the phone), mounts for the battery, and contacts to transfer data and power back-and-forth with the phone. Reasonable is in the eye of the beholder.
The LG G5 is LG at its most LG. They're being innovative and trying new things and throwing in everything — kitchen sink included — and hoping something sticks. The Galaxy S7 is Samsung at its most Apple; they've taken an already excellent smartphone and refined and improved almost every aspect of it. The LG G5's modules are a unique and innovative idea, but they're solving in a clunky manner for a problem that doesn't necessarily exist; in the process LG will either aggravate their customers or design themselves into a corner — or both.