I hate to be a hater, but some things just need to be said. I think Lenovo, the new patron of the Moto brand after it took over Motorola, is going down a very wrong path with its Moto Z modular smartphone series. As a company that’s losing ground to cheaper rivals at home in China and better-marketed iPhone and Galaxy alternatives in the USA, Lenovo is grasping for a unique selling point — modularity. But, to my eyes at least, that bet is never going to pay off. Modular phones are the passing fad of 2016, and Lenovo’s commitment to them beyond this year could be an albatross for an already ailing mobile division.
Modular devices have appeal, both tactile and cultural, that transcends a mere explanation of their function or purpose — but what I’ve found this year is that their economics just don’t work out. No one is disputing that it would be cool to extract one cartridge from your phone, load up another, and suddenly go from high-end photography to high-end audio. What I’m arguing, however, is that LG’s £149 ($195) Hi-Fi Plus module isn’t going to be part of that fantasy. And neither will Lenovo’s Insta-Share Projector Moto Mod, which at $299 costs roughly as much as buying a Moto G and a Moto E.
The core problem with modular phones is the phones themselves. These devices are too cheap and commoditized to serve as the fulcrum of a whole new generation of hardware. At the same time, they’re also too personal and valuable to be treated as disposable skeleton bits. So the aspiring modular parts manufacturer has no viable option. Lenovo can’t deemphasize the phone and transfer all value to the extras — because the external parts are not yet good enough, but also because people aren’t ready to have a relationship with a module — and neither is it likely to procure Moto Z modules at sufficiently attractively prices. The most affordable Moto Z Mod, beyond the $20 snap-on covers and $60 battery packs, is an $80 speaker add-on. That price only makes sense in a world that isn’t already populated by a wide variety of Bluetooth speakers compatible with all mobile devices, not just Moto’s.
Moto Mods are neither cheap nor essential
I don’t doubt Lenovo’s engineering expertise. By all accounts, the snapping mechanism that the company has devised for its Moto Mods works beautifully, and it’s nice to have things that work seamlessly together. But this company is competing in the global smartphone market, not a high school science fair, and its success will depend on presenting better value than the competition, not cleverer design. Without the benefit of the value-projecting fairy dust of brands like Apple and Beats, Lenovo will have an uphill climb trying to justify its Moto Mods pricing with functionality and looks, and our review has shown that none of the company’s extras are essential.
When LG dove head-first into the modular smartphone competition with its G5 earlier this year, it was extremely cagey about committing to support its modules beyond that initial handset. It wasn’t the greatest vote of confidence in the company’s own technology, but it was the right move. Developing a single smartphone is already a massive multi-year undertaking, and spending extra time and money on building up its ecosystem is a luxury that few in the mobile industry can afford. So LG went into it with a measure of caution, and now that the G5 has proven itself a disappointment among critics and users, the company can withdraw from the modular fad and refocus its energies on building the best single phone.
I happen to really like the Moto Z for its super thin and highly distinctive design. The big circular camera bump on its back sticks out proudly — it turns something that other phone makers are embarrassed about into a handsome design feature. But with Lenovo now guaranteeing to support Moto Mods "beyond 2016," we all know that this design will go unchanged for a while. That’s actually quite a big concession to make in the hypercompetitive and ultra-fickle world of smartphone design.
Consumers want change all the time, and sometimes a phone maker’s biggest weapon against current competition is the mystery, the unknowability, of its future designs. By conforming future Moto Z designs to the Moto Mod footprint, Lenovo is burdening itself with an added competitive disadvantage. I asked Lenovo about this and the company underplayed the issue by saying "it's really only size we're talking about. Technology and other design elements still have the ability to evolve in models year-over-year."
If you're going to build gadgets for just one brand, why would that be Lenovo?
Both Lenovo and LG are working hard to stimulate third-party mod developers and to build out a self-sustaining ecosystem around their devices. But being a mobile hardware developer is already a tough gig, as evidenced by the giants initiating these schemes. If established brands like JBL can’t produce a fun speaker Mod at an impulse-purchase price, I don’t see a ton of potential for small startups to do much better. More to the point, if I was going to develop new hardware, I’d go to Kickstarter to do a universal gadget a hundred times before I tied my fortunes to a single, sinking mobile vendor.
My fear is that Lenovo is investing too heavily into a dead-end project. Yes, the company needs a strategy to escape the quagmire of being a mid-tier Android smartphone maker, but modularity is a perfidious mirage. Rather than pulling Lenovo out of the quicksand, it’s liable to sink it deeper into a muddle of ongoing design liabilities and engineering challenges.
There’s no easy answer to Lenovo’s conundrum, which is also faced by LG, Sony, and HTC. Competing at the highest level with Apple and Samsung is hard, and everyone’s looking for an alternative way to survive. The Motorola of yesteryear defined its niche by offering cheaper, more customizable phones that might have been smaller in size and specs, but also addressed people’s real everyday needs. Maybe it’s time the new Moto went back to its old ways.