The modular smartphone and why we need it

LG is about to release the first ever, consumer-ready modular phone and Jack Wallen believes this could become the new standard.

Image: Josh Miller/CNET

When the LG G5 is finally released, it will introduce a concept that some have tried and all have (pretty much) failed. I'm talking about modularity. Google's been trying it for a while with project Ara and, quite honestly, the idea is brilliant; allow users to piece together the ideal smartphone to perfectly meet their needs. How could that not succeed?

Because no one has managed to do it right. Until now.

Unfortunately, Google's Project Ara is mostly a proof of concept device that will doubtfully ever come to market. And that, my friends, is a shame. However, LG might have come up with the perfect solution for what ails Ara - a different kind of modularity that isn't nearly as granular. What the LG G5 looks to bring to the masses is a device that will allow you to slide out a small battery sheath and slide in the likes of:

  • Another (fresh) battery
  • A higher-powered camera (the Cam Plus)
  • A Bang and Olufsen Hi-Fi Plus DAC

Consider this, you're about to go to an event and you know you'll want to take good photos. You slip out the battery and slide in the Cam Plus to rock some serious photos. Or your battery is about to die and you don't have the means to get a charge any time soon. Slide out the dead battery and slip in a fresh one. This does, of course, have a caveat in that the phone doesn't have a built-in smaller battery to keep the phone running while you swap out modules. Even so, this is a major evolutionary step in the realm of smartphones, one that other manufacturers would be remiss to not pick up on.

Shouldn't we leave well enough alone?

In a word, no. You see, the smartphone has evolved in such a way that it could reach critical mass soon. The development of devices has turned into shaving off a millimeter here, bumping a pixel or two there, rounding a corner, squaring a corner, carbon fiber, metal, glass, adding/removing SD cards, well, you know the drill. Manufacturers are having to eek out improvements because the devices are becoming harder and harder to improve. So the race to the top is now all about micro-changes. What the modular device could do is allow the manufacturers to create a base flagship device and then continue to pump out new add-ons to keep the attention focused on their product for a long time. This would mean the base device could remain unchanged and enjoy a continuous flow of modules.

Imagine, if you will, LG could license the idea to third-parties who could then develop add-ons such as:

  • Receipt printers
  • High quality mics
  • Full-functioning docks
  • Projectors
  • USB ports
  • SD card readers

The list could go on and on and even delve into market-specific add-ons for, say, the medical or food service industry.

Upgrades aplenty

The idea of the modular smartphone also leads us to a much better means of upgrading. Instead of upgrading an entire device (because your battery isn't holding a charge or something "sexier" comes along), why not just purchase an add-on or two to extend the form and functionality of your current device? To me, that makes perfect sense. This also means upgrades can then reach well beyond the idea of internal storage, RAM, screen size, material...blah, blah, blah. Add-ons of this nature could easily give the mobile space a much-needed kick in the pants.

We can keep watching manufacturers continue to vary the devices they release like the fashion industry, telling us that this year "carbon is the new metal" or "square is the new round". Or, we can hope that a modular device will be the new standard and upgrades are as simple as purchasing add-ons to extend your device well beyond the original intent.

I say bravo to LG for bringing this aging idea to market. The LG G5 should go a long way to show that the modular smartphone is not only needed, but can succeed.

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