It's hard enough to sell simple smartphones these days. Just look the earnings of nearly every mobile manufacturer. It ain't easy.
So why are manufacturers like LG and potentially Lenovo (Motorola) making it so much harder on themselves?
There's something about saying the word "modular" that gets nerds all revved up. Maybe it's just fun to say. Or maybe it's just the idea of taking your phone — this slab of a computer that fits in our pocket, the thing that we've been doing things with every single day for longer than we can remember at this point — and doing something different with it. Doesn't even matter if that different thing is bad. We're just that bored with our phones that we're looking for anything new and out of the ordinary.
Problem is, that doesn't scale. And many of these manufacturers already are having to sell phones with razor-thin margins. Apple is the lone exception when it comes to profit. (And a lot of that has to do with some genius logistics work as much as it does to do the products it's selling.) Samsung is still in the black, but not by a whole lot.
That brings us back to these "modules." The LG G5 is the first phone of the year — and the first in a very, very long time — to attempt to augment functionality via optional accessories that clip into the bottom of the phone, using the same battery. It's becoming more apparent that Lenovo's Motorola phones are going to do something in that same vein. But this has been a mess from the start. There currently are two modules ("Friends," LG calls them) in existence. There's the LG CAM Plus camera grip and extended battery, and the Hi-Fi Plus with B&O Play high-definition digital-to-analog converter. Only, the Hi-Fi Plus isn't available to those of us who live in the United States. (LG has yet to officially explain why.)
And it turns out there actually are two versions of CAM Plus — one for AT&T's G5, and one for everyone else's. (We've asked LG for clarification on that one, too.) That's almost a throwback to the old days when there would be small but important physical differences in phones, requiring a different battery or case from one U.S. carrier to the next. In any event, that means even more costly production of something that already won't see the same sort of scale that Samsung's Galaxy phones enjoy. And that's to say nothing of it not being that great of a product in the first place.
MotoMods pic.twitter.com/cV8N4U63oS— Evan Blass (@evleaks) May 26, 2016
And now we have Lenovo and Motorola getting into the game, if and when these rumors of "MotoMods" pan out. (And they almost certainly will.) A projector, speakers and camera. Manufacturers have been trying to do projectors for years. Nobody's buying. Not in any numbers, anyway. A better speaker? Awesome. Build it into the phone. Same for the camera. None of that's going to outweigh the importance of the phone itself — be it a new Moto X, or possibly a name change to Moto Z.
First you have to have a phone that's good enough to get someone to buy. LG has done that with the G5, imperfect as it may be. Motorola could certainly do that with a new Moto X or Moto Z. But even then, you're asking folks to buy more on top of what they've already spent — and then carry it around in addition to the phone itself. Additional functionality is usually a good thing. But it's got to really be worth it, both in terms of money, and headache. A heavier, thicker phone? Wasn't the one I just bought good enough already?
And then there's the continuing question of obsolescence. We have absolutely no idea if any LG G5 modules we buy today will be any good in a year when the next phone comes out. Maybe they don't have to be. But what about in two years? Or three years? While CAM Plus isn't all that expensive — $70 on Amazon, now that we're looking — it's still a cost. (And while we're at it, what about the future cost of landfill space?)
No. Smartphone manufacturers need to concentrate on the basics. Compelling hardware that we only have to buy once. Batteries that last longer, or at least charge faster. Cameras that more accurately capture what we're looking at. A user interface that doesn't suck. Software that receives updates in a more timely manner than it does today — and without breaking things in the process.
Do that. Give me a phone that I know will work, and work well, and work well 10 and 12 months from now when the next major version of Android is ready. Worry about that, not differentiating with a series of accessories that I probably shouldn't need in the first place.
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