First Click: Microsoft’s beautiful new Xbox shows why modular gadgets are doomed

June 14th, 2016


The hot new gimmick for smartphone makers in 2016 has definitely been modularity. LG introduced the G5 with its swappable bottoms, Lenovo just launched the Moto Z alongside a range of function-enhancing snap covers, and Google announced plans to bring its Project Ara modular device to market. Each of these ventures runs counter to the established direction of consumer electronics toward greater convergence. I applaud the courage of each company to try something different, but just one look at Microsoft’s new Xbox One S — the latest example of what converged technology can produce — convinces me that modularity is the wrong path to follow.

What is the Xbox One S? It’s an Xbox One streamlined into a prettier, lovelier box that’s 40 percent smaller. Microsoft’s made some internal upgrades as well, but the basic point is that this beautiful new Xbox is the product of the classic cycle of inventing new technology and then innovating by shrinking it down to a smaller size. Even the name, One, was originally coined to convey Microsoft’s thinking about its latest console generation as the one central hub for your entertainment at home. The very ethos of this console has been to deprecate and obviate other boxes, just as the smartphone has done for so many discrete portable gadgets.

The unitary, cohesively designed gadget has won

Lenovo and LG staked their big new flagship launches this year on the idea that people would like more and better functions from their phone and would tolerate some extra expense and parts as the price for that added utility. I think they’re both comprehensively, tragically wrong. We, the users, love to talk about how much we value function over form, and yet our favorite smartphones are rarely the ones with the most features and capabilities. Our shopping choices betray our appreciation for pretty things, whether they’re called iPhone, Galaxy, or, until recently, HTC One.

The unitary, cohesively designed gadget has won. As much as we enjoy the fantasy of hot-swappable modules that transform devices from one thing into another, we’ve never shown the willingness to invest our money to buy such devices in huge numbers. Without anyone willing to spend big, modular phone manufacturers inevitably have to cut corners to create a sellable product for the mass market, and that, in turn, creates underwhelming experiences of modularity. Nothing ever transforms with modular gadgets, they just add an extra wart or random appendage to the original device.

To look at the Xbox One S is to admire a gorgeous piece of tech furniture. I’m a committed PC gamer and even I kinda want one of these just to stand it upright in my home and admire its distilled lines, elegant proportions, and timeless black-and-white color scheme. Like the smartphones in our pockets, consoles have subsumed many of the devices in our homes simply because they’re easier and more convenient. Now that they’ve taken over that preeminent role, it’s their attractiveness and practicality that will keep them ahead of any modular competitors.

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