The Moto Z is a good phone headed down the wrong path

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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.

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."

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.

Comments

Vlad, pros like Michael Fisher (mr mobile) and Lisa Gade at mobiletech reviews loved the phone and the mods. Its Motos new direction and it seems you have a heavy burden on your shoulders that needs lifting – the old moto is dead…..

Why all the hate Vlad ?? You said it yourself "There’s no easy answer to Lenovo’s conundrum" but even if you try something different, you get beaten down by some reviewers.

Maybe there’s no answer at all and companies like Lenovo and Sony are better off not being in this market at all. I don’t think their execution to this point has been flawless (e.g. the home button-shaped fingerprint sensor on the Moto Z and G that isn’t a home button or Sony’s scandalously laggy Xperia Z5 camera software) and my position, though it might seem idealistic, is that just making better products is the winning strategy.

It’s often taken as some sort of extraneous event when a company like HTC or Lenovo is struggling to sell phones. But it honestly isn’t: HTC’s entire executive team abandoned their posts because of mismanagement and the company spent years delivering appealing but repetitive designs and underwhelming cameras. If Motorola had stuck with the distinctive design and ethos of its 2013 lineup, it might have made the economics work over the course of a few years of repeatedly good phones. But instead Lenovo reverted to the predictable spec and size chase that everyone else is engaged in. Lenovo neutered the Moto distinctiveness and now it’s attempting to rekindle it with the help of expensive extras that very few people would find enough value in to actually purchase.

Ask yourself, regarding the reviewers you mention who like these accessories, are they actually buying them? Is Michael, who I consider a good friend and a sage reviewer, actually putting down $300 for a washed-out pico projector that he can only strap to one brand of phone?

Honestly, I’m repeating arguments here that I have articulated in the article above. I am not serving you a dose of "all the hate," I am presenting what I, in my experience as a phone reviewer and with the benefit of my knowledge of the mobile industry and its internal economics, see as a conflicting strategy that is unlikely to pay off. Not for Lenovo and not for the consumer.

The trouble with these critical editorials is they always incite a critical reaction, like yours. But nobody comes back to note their accuracy when they’re proven out by facts years down the line. I also spent a lot of time criticising Nokia during the N8 days, and got flak for it, and I bashed BlackBerry before that became a running joke, and got flak for it. It’s much easier to write a glowing, happy, embracing-new-tech editorial, as then (almost) no one feels I’ve besmirched their favorite brand. But sometimes unhappy things have to be said too.

Keep in mind these Mods are optional. It’s not like you’re being forced to buy a MotoMod to use the device. If you want a projector, or JBL speaker, you have the option to do so. And future MotoMods might make this a game changer. Imagine a camera module that gives you better quality (Hasselblad camera Mod leak). Right now is the start, and we’ll have to wait to see the future of this device.

Many reviewers praise Moto’s new direction with this phone. But every article I see from Vlad is hating on the phone. Why?

It’s not hate, he has reasons. It’s not always the ‘Mainstream Media’s fault that your favorite products fail. Sometimes it’s because Lenovo is cheap and stupid with software updates and the mods just aren’t that compelling.

Still none of these guys have done a joystick/gaming mod even though that was one of the first case ‘mods’ for the iphone. That kills me. The one thing I would consider.

Keep in mind these Mods are optional. It’s not like you’re being forced to buy a MotoMod to use the device.

Would you still buy it then? I can’t get past the ugly-ness of the front with the oddly placed and used fingerprint sensor. And then there’s the problem of the no-headphone jack.

I agree with Vlad. They’re making something that isn’t very good; instead of trying gimmicks, they should have just made a better phone.

Many reviewers say it’s one of the best looking phones of 2016. Right now, only the projector and battery mod appeals to me. But of course, this is just the beginning. Motorola opened their MotoMods platform to developers, and there were some really interesting leaks, like a Hasselblad camera Mod. That’s what I’m most excited about.

The only company that tries something new, and does a pretty good job at it. (I mean the LG G5 was awful)

They also have explicitly said they’re not going to give you security updates. So they’re trying something new, and are doing it okay, but in the meantime are destroying the pillars of what made them a great bedrock choice. They’re turning into a different LG, without the value play. That’s not a winning strategy?

There are so many more things to a phone to consider, other than its looks. I personally could care less about how good it looks, when it is awkward to hold and use. I don’t want it to take ten seconds, or more, to open the camera app and take a pic. I also don’t want to pay $700 for a phone with an average overall experience. Especially when we all know that if it weren’t for them being Verizon exclusives, they would cost a lot less.The security update argument that other peeps are using is insignificant in my eyes, but the fact that it will take forever for android updates is kind of a big deal. Take yourself out of the fanboy equation, and look at things from an unbiased perspective. There are better phones to spend your money on.

It doesn’t really matter what the reviewers say. Of course these modules are interesting gadgets to gadget-loving and geeky tech reviewers. Ultimately, most consumers aren’t interested in buying extra modules. And even if they are optional, they are the major and probably the only selling point of these phones. Then, why would someone buy it over a Galaxy or an iPhone?

When I see those mods I cant help but think of those old clunky mods you would place underneath old consoles like the SNES for extra CD-capacity, modem etc that nobody used.

I don’t see modular phones being successful without standards so modules can be used with different phones, but that’s unlikely because of how different phones are in shape and size. Modules aren’t even guaranteed to work with future versions of the phone. Not many people are going to want to get heavily invested in a single phone.

Modularity seems like another gimmick.

Correction: in Motorola’s case, the Mods are guaranteed to work with phones "beyond 2016," so that gives you at least one more Moto Z generation. That doesn’t invalidate your bigger point, though, which is that without an industry-wide embrace of a standard modular system, people will be very reluctant to buy any extras and lock themselves into a single-brand ecosystem. At this point, I think only Apple can pull that off successfully (as evidenced by sales of the Apple Watch), but even that’s not 100% certain.

Apple is definitely the only one that can truly pull this off and build an ecosystem around it; I just don’t think they ever would. They already have MFi and modules would just be another version of that but with the added burden of handcuffing Apple’s design teams.

What’s to stop Lenovo from just not making more moto mods or having next years phone be compatible?

Hey Vlad there’s sense to what you’re saying in this article, but that is sad because I do think these Moto Mods are somewhat cool. I did feel compelled to get the phone because of the battery Mod and the Stylish Mods but I can’t because… iPhone 7/GalaxyS8 u.u

Anyway. I’ll put a reminder in this post to go back here and check if you were right 4 or 5 years from now.

Yes. There already is an industry-standard modular system, and it’s called Bluetooth/USB.

I don’t even know why modular phones even exist. The only iteration of a modular phone that might’ve been worth building was from that concept YouTube video. I don’t even think project Ara is gonna be a game changer or significantly change market demand for modular phones. It’s the 3D TV b.s. all over again. Companies trying to create buzz by forcing new but poorly executed tech down our throats to generate more revenue. As much as I don’t like the feel and look of Samsung phones, I feel like they’re the only company innovating anything interesting, which is kinda odd considering they started out by copying other companies.

Samsung and iphone have both had successful ‘modules’ based on current phone designs, not because they’re the same every year, but because they’re so popular to begin with.

Vlad I agree with you . IMO the design sucks and nobody wants a projector in their phone at the cost of easy handling.

When I see all these Android OEMs trying to figure out where to be in the market, I always wonder why none of them seem to want to shoot for the segment of "no hardware compromises, pure Android". Samsung makes no-compromise hardware but adds bloat. Moto in the past has made compromised mid range hardware with little software boat. The Nexus 6P was supposedly no hardware compromises and pure Android, but the reality is that it did actually compromise on several hardware aspects (headphone DAC, widespread issues with Bluetooth, lack of OIS, etc). If any of these OEMs want to get a perfect score from reviewers, the ticket would be a high end no compromise hardware + vanilla Android phone. But nobody has ever made one…

I’ll take a bigger sensor with 1.55 um pixels over OIS every day of the week. (i.e.Nexus 6p and 5x)

How many people googled perfidious?

Full disclosure: I didn’t know what that meant until I played Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Half my thesaurus is derived from Sid Meier games.

macOS super-tip: ctrl+cmd+d on words you don’t understand.

Super Duper Tip: Triple tap on any word. A pop up will appear. No need to memorize this command I guess.

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