First Click: The undeniable appeal of modular gadgets

October 28th, 2015

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As I write this, Blocks — “the world’s first modular smartwatch,” according to its Kickstarter page — has raised nearly $1.2 million in pledges. That’s a lot of support for an upstart smartwatch, a nascent category of wearables with fairly narrow consumer appeal. Its success is notable due to the inherent risk associated with backing complex, high-tech crowdfunding campaigns — why take the chance when smartwatches of every conceivable style and price are already available from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung? Easy, none of those smartwatches are modular.

There’s something so damn appealing about modular gadgets — an elegance that comes from being able to manipulate complex engineering through a series of clicks. Dave Hakkens blew up the internet in 2013 with his video concept for a modular smartphone dubbed Phonebloks. The YouTube view counter recently ticked past 21 million, or about as many phones as Microsoft sold over the last year. Google — the ultimate nerd factory — is now trying to make Phonebloks a reality under Project Ara.

There are many reasons modularity is appealing, especially to fans of gadgets and consumer electronics. First, it gives a sense of ownership, a sense of control that extends way beyond ornamental services like Moto Maker. Manipulation of hardware is appealing in the same way that customizing Android software titillates. It makes a device unique, like something you’ve built yourself. And DIY projects tend to make people happy.

I think part of the appeal is also in the simplicity of the message. Want to add navigation to your Blocks watch? Snap on the GPS module. Want to take better photos on your Ara phone? Snap in the improved camera module. It’s the perfect elevator pitch that any non geek can understand.

Modular design is also green. Fairphone offers an ethically sourced smartphone that’s also easily repairable. This allows owners to swap out the most commonly broken components like the screen, camera, CPU, and speaker instead of throwing the device away after the warranty expires.

It’s also frugal. Samsung, for example, offers a $299 Evolution Kit for some of its TVs, allowing you to extend the life of that  perfectly good display for a decade or more while still supporting the latest advances in smart TV OSes. John Gruber and other Apple watchers even speculated that the Watch Edition would be modular in order to justify its $10,000 price tag long after that hunk of gold was incapable of supporting software updates.

Yet even with all these benefits, modularity is still a niche interest. Making devices modular usually adds additional bulk that doesn’t play well in a disposable society obsessed with sleek unibody designs. And executing on modular designs isn't easy for companies, as demonstrated by the Project Ara delays. But what a beautiful niche it is.

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