Ask Hackaday: Why Did Modular Smart Phones Fail?

Remember all the talk about modular smart phones? They sounded amazing! instead of upgrading your phone you would just upgrade the parts a bit like a computer but more simplistic. Well it seems modular phones are dead (video, embedded below) even after a lot of major phone manufacturers were jumping on the bandwagon. Even Google got on-board with Google Ara which was subsequently cancelled. LG released the G5 but it didn’t fare too well. The Moto Z from Motorola seemed to suffer from the same lack of interest. The buzz was there when the concept of these modular phones was announced, and people were genuinely exited about the possibilities. What went wrong?

For a start people expect their phones to have everything on board already, whether it be cameras, GPS, WiFi, high-capacity batteries or high-resolution screens. Consumers expect these things to come as standard. Why would they go out and buy a module when other phones on the market already have these things?

Sure you could get some weird and wonderful modules like extra loud speakers or perhaps a projector, but the demand for these items was small. And because these extras are already available as separate accessories not locked down to one device, it was a non starter from the beginning.

When we did our user studies. What we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent. — Lead engineer Project Ara

The hackability of these phones would have been interesting to say the least, had they come to the mainstream. It just seems the public want thin sleek aluminum phones that they treat more as a status symbol than anything else. Modular phones have to be more bulky to accommodate the power/data rails and magnets for the modules, so they’ll lose out in pocketability. Still, we hope the idea is revisited in the future and not left on the scrap-heap of obsolescence.

Would you buy a modular smart phone? Even if it is bigger or more expensive? Is that really why they failed?

96 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Why Did Modular Smart Phones Fail?

    1. I want a big battery, reasonable ram and cpu….. oh and that’s it.

      Seriously tho it’s incredibly hard to actually find something – They all come with stupid extras I don’t want. I don’t care if the camera is the latest and greatest. I mean right now I’ve got a S4, because I refuse to shell out what feels like extortionate amounts of money for an upgrade which frankly doesn’t look like an upgrade to me.

      1. Cameras, I’d be happy with a 5Mpixel that is as decent as a Canon Powershot compact from back in the day, instead we get these theoretically 12Mpixel plus turds that have abysmal low light performance and color balance, and take pics about overall as good as one of the 1st gen consumer budget point and shoots of 1 or 2 Mpix.

          1. Vertical video makes sense if (, and only if,) it is meant to be seen only on handheld screens. But then, it deepens the expanding schism between world of computing, world of “sitting” multimedia entertainment, and world of handhelds. I guess there will be no further convergence, trends pundits were wrong and money was wasted. It is not a technical problem, it is use case/form difference.

      2. Yeah – there’s stuff I don’t use on my current phone, but really I would like some of the features that used to be on phones that were nice to have, specially the damned slide out keyboard.

      3. Except that you found something. If the S8 doesn’t seem like an upgrade to you it’s because you don’t value anything past a certain point. You won’t find anything to suit you anymore. All you’ll find is that when your S4 suddenly breaks you can replace it with a bottom of the line phone with the same performance.

        1. I’ve got a midend model released 2.5 years ago and it zips through everything I wanna do on it, so wouldn’t see much point in S8 features here…plus why seem to be coming with “unfeatures” now, like too big to stick in your pocket and edge to edge screens when the 1/8 bezel on the one I’ve got don’t seem big enough to avoid spurious touches when you’re just trying to hold onto the thing.

  1. It failed because no vendor had them in their plans, at least here in Germany.
    You have to be lucky to get a cool non-mainstream phone over here with your subscription.

    1. No it failed because no one gave a crap. People don’t upgrade piecemeal for performance like they do computers. They upgrade for style. No one salivates over another phone’s CPU. People ask questions like “what phone is it?” not “how much ram does it have?” or “how fast is the processor?”.

      1. Few people upgrade PCs. The last time I upgraded a motherboard was when I went from 512K to 640K. I did occasionally add a drive, but that was it (that didn’t count some of the Frankenbeasts I built from scratch, using discarded PCs). Now I’m not sure what speed my home PC runs it… which was something I knew for the first 20 years of owning a computer.

        Markus does have a point: it is hard for the market to decide if the suppliers decide for you.

        Another point: at least PC had a fairly standard form factor in each generation of PC. If you bought a card for a PC, you could plug it in. Floppy drives, HD, CD roms were all the same, at least for desktops. That fell apart for laptops, as upgrades were often very specific to make & model. I think the only possible way a modular phone would of succeeded is if all basic modules were vendor agnostic. That meant that if you wanted a better camera, then just replace the one you have.

        Maybe the better model would be the Handspring Visor, with a slot that allowed new features to be added (they had a phone module, so I guess it would of technically been the very first smart phone). We did a project for a customer who developed a EEG monitor that used the empty cell phone module (we over-molded the external electronics module). I still have one of the systems, as i was given one to use for testing.

        1. The issue was cost.
          With a modular phone you do not get the economy of scale. Each module is going to be for one maker’s phone and possible one model. So who is going to pay $400 for a better camera or $100 for better speakers?
          It reminds me too much of a very old Kaypro computer from the mid 80s. I still have the poster claiming that it was going to end obsolesce. I used an ISA backplane and you could just swap the “cpu” card which was actually the computer. The problem is they never made an upgrade card for it. Kind of like how you could put new graphics cards in the MacPro of anyone made them.
          So you are probably going to say, “Just use a standard” Except no cell phone makers would want to do that. They can look at the PC market and see that would just make the race to the bottom and smaller and smaller margins happen all the sooner.

  2. because people want slim shiny phones. They want to purchase the latest and the greatest every year. It has little to do with the functionality that they NEED and more to do with the shiny that they WANT. Regardless of the consequences on the environment and the less fortunate.

    Re-usable / recycleable modular phones ? yuck! It might be more environmentally friendly but look at it…it’s so fat! and the screen is not 4K retina!

    Phone making Corporations also love it. They measure their own success by how many phones they sell every year and how much money was made as a result. Environment and human suffering are irrelevant.

      1. if I can plug in different modules then yes it makes the phone overall more environmentally friendly. If I need to upgrade the CPU, RAM or Battery, I can sell my used module to someone else and buy the new modules as required. Even if I chuck the used modules, at least I’ll be chucking one module at a time instead of the entire phone. This ability to re-use and sell used modules means less phones go in the garbage/landfill or whatever fake electronics recycling company that simply dumps the electronics in a landfill in another (usually less fortunate) country.

    1. I have a low-end Samsung that i plan to keep until it dies. Even new, it would of made the average teenager cry.

      Of course, I purchase stuff that meets my needs. Given I’m pretty close to the “get off my lawn” age, I rarely care if people consider my stuff to be unhip. I draw the line at sunglasses. I do have cool shades.

      1. That. I don’t need to upgrade my phone’s SoC (de-modularization is what made compact phones possible, by the way) or RAM (admittedly, they were kinda oversized when I bought it) for the next year (and my phone’s a one plus one). When I decide to upgrade one of the core components, I’d definitely also update the display, and the battery.

        That would leave me with a working camera. And that camera is relatively crappy.

        So, there’s really no /need/ or /demand/ or even significant /benefit/ to an upgrade path as long as /all/ components seem to improve. And if they don’t, I can hold out a little longer.

  3. When I bought my Android I saw the expandable memory as a feature, but then I realized the phone only came with 1 GB of free space. Under the guise of allowing me freedom to upgrade they sold me a device that is missing core functionality for which I must now pay extra.

  4. I never thought this would take off just due to the connections. Cell phones live a pretty tough life, the pocket environment is a pretty dirty place and it seems every phone i’ve owned at one point or another had an issue with a physical connection. I put a case on my S6 and the flap that covered the micro usb slot pushed on the USB cable, causing the port to be slowly damaged over time, now I have to use the wireless charging pad if I want to be sure it wont stop charging halfway through due to being bumped slightly. Now you have all these modules that need an electrical and physical connection. What happens the first time you leave it in your lap when you exit your car? With my luck i’m reaching under my car for the camera module, the extra battery module has disappeared, and the weather module is in a puddle. Considering most average consumers are relatively happy to buy the newest phone every other year or so, if for no other reason than the status symbol you mention, its not surprising this idea died. I’m honestly surprised manufactures were ever willing to invest in the idea in the first place, as one would think it might cut into new phone sales.

    1. I had the Samsung Captivate (aka S1) as well as the S-3; both of them suffered from physical charging port problems and were replaced under warranty. My opinion is that there is a lot of collusion in the industry to have people replace the phones every 2 years, and that the charging port stability is just one of the shoddy things going on 2-year roulette

  5. Modular phones was a ridiculous concept. What possible use case requires it? Sure, IR receiver, or other similarly niche things? For what, like 0.1% of the smartphone users? Why not just make a separate device that connects via bluetooth?

    I’m glad they’re no longer wasting their money on this dumb idea.

  6. I believe the quote from Rafa is out of context. The quote is from interviews regarding going from having modular core components (CPU, storage, wifi/bt, etc.) switchable to baked into the phone’s housing to leave room for modules that do other things that the phone’s core functionality. Rafa wasn’t saying what is implied here or in the video.

    A true modular phone like Ara was never tried in the market. Phones with single modules (which were tried) are not the same thing as a fully modular phone.

  7. Because it wasn’t really a developer API. Could I get a 10x battery? No. FLiR thermal camera? No. I doubt a second micro SD card or full size SD. SATA interface? HDMI?

    Something like cars where you can get any color, but only two or three engines and generally can’t modify them.

    Modular, yes, but not expandable or configurable in the sense of a desktop PC. More like Apple with it’s DRM lockdown “Apple approved hardware”.

    At that point, just get something like the Raspberry PI and talk over bluetooth or WiFi if you really want to do anything.

    1. Just like I do with my ESP8266 WiFi-to-everything bridge, which is the only way to get GPIO out of anything that supports WiFi, even if the phone/tablet/old PDA/Nintendo DS/other device has GPIO functionality built-in (yes, the Nintendo DS has GPIO pins, they are used for the RTC, sound output redirection, nonexistent “debug” buttons, and there are some spare ones too).

      Modular phones are good for serviceability, cost and ecological impact, but people don’t want an ugly electronic jigsaw puzzle with lots of seemingly identical pieces to assemble and lose. They want a phone that works out of the box and don’t mind replacing it every year (as they must replace it anyway to show the world they have the latest iPhone/Samsung Galaxy/whatever). Even batteries became non-replaceable, with Apple starting the trend and other manufacturers stupidly following it.

      1. Batteries should always be replaceable. I was going to say the most important module in phones still is modular: THE BATTERY. I will probably not by a phone, ever, that does not have a replaceable or upgradable (upgradeable?) battery. Right now I am in absolute battery bliss with my old S3 and its extended 7000mah battery. Yes, the phone is a bit larger and heavier but I don’t care. I’m a man.

        I think the modular phone fail was also due to the manufacturers not wanting peoples phones to be *too useful* for *too long*. If you can easily pop out any module and replace it — take the battery for example — the longer it will take for last years model to drop away and people be ready to upgrade. Make the battery too hard to replace, and well, well, what do you know, most people will just throw the phone away and get a new one.

        1. > Batteries should always be replaceable.

          No, they shouldn’t. My last three phones’ batteries survive the phone itself.

          The times when the battery was the first thing to fail are over.

          I’d much rather have a battery neatly integrated into my phone’s enclosure with good thermal contact to the outside than an exchangeable battery that I’ll never exchange before my phone obsoletes or dies an accidental date. Currently aiming for a 4.5 yrs life period, and it works out well for me, so far.

          1. Well I’d be comfortable with that if there was a 5 year battery warranty, but there won’t be.

            I only stopped using my Nokia 51xx because it ate a battery every 6-8 months and I ran out of cheap sources.

  8. Ah yes, the old ‘There was so much hype about this and it failed!? What went wrong?’….

    There wasn’t so much hype about it, stop living in a bubble. Hype is when everyone you meet on the street knows what it is. Even my MUM knows what an iphone is, and she can’t use a computer to save her life.

    Even if you had every youtuber talking about modular phones being the greatest thing, they’d still be reaching such a small amount of the population and people within that social group would be saying how they are going to change the world, but in reality the hype is minute.

    1. I disagree in technology circles there was a general hype around the idea, It may never have been mainstream hype but it got people talking there are lots of articles online about the possibilities of modular phones etc. “hype” doesn’t have to mean your mum wants one or knows about it.

      I am pretty sure most peoples mothers have no idea what an esp8266, Raspberry Pi or an Arduino is but these products have/had massive “hype”.

      1. The concept of modular phones circulated within my group of highly technical people, but I never saw much more than eyerolling. It was in the same category as an IoT cat toy that connects to an app and lets you download new laser patterns.

    2. yep. This is like {insert C category celebrity group}; the only people talking about it are the ones that want to make themselves feel better on these folks cost, and the people generating content.

      This might sound a bit harsh, but: Dear Hackaday, the set of all people that I’ve heard of actually perceiving a hype around modular phones: the hackaday editorial board.

  9. If they built it on usb or something else well supported already, then it would work. USB Keyboard? Can do. USB battery? Why not? USB touch interface? Easy. USB storage? Brainlessly easy. USB modem? I don’t know about android exactly, but these have existed for a long time and work ok. Maybe USB-C being smaller will make this possible, but it seems kernel support is all here, so it should work great with no software foolery or hardware vendor lock-in.

  10. “Would you buy a modular smart phone?”

    Asking that particular question would seem to invite simple Yes or No type answers without the context behind such a reply.

    When I saw discussion of modular phones start cropping up I wasn’t thinking of creating a phone from a cluster of modules but exploiting those modules to create all sorts of computing hardware. Like a wristband frame with a few modules and a low power E-ink display, or expansion frames that you could hook together to add stuff like a slide out keyboard+ or even turn that modular phone into a palmtop computer.

    I was hoping that with enough success we’d soon see an entire ecosystem of moderately/cheap priced or used modules for sale that would really complement the Maker/Hacker groups.

    I guess we’ll just have to find a way to build that ourselves.

    Now…the modules were going to be held in place with magnets, right? I can sort of see that but figured there’d be some mechanism somewhat like the one used for older laptops expansion card slots.

    As for power I was thinking of something along the lines of magnetic induction along with an optical fiber-like network embedded in the frames housing…..

    1. that’s so true.. in my mind the whole point of modularity would be to tweak the core modules of the phone not to switch one stupid freaking gadgets with another. also if (at least some of) the modular connectors were open ppl could actually develop their own modules specific to their needs. now that would be a phone i would buy!!

      1. The problem with the connectors is that they change as the performance goes up. Even in PCs, which are designed to be modular, we’ve gone through many different bus standards, memory standards, CPU socket standards, power standards, and disk standards. Basically, every couple of years you have to replace the entire set, because your new CPU won’t fit in your old motherboard, can’t talk to your old RAM, and requires a bigger power connector.

  11. 1. If I don’t get timely OS/software/bug updates on my device, why would I ever buy something that “adds” to that problem?

    2. Add-on devices WILL be tied to a highly modified base Android OS/UI (which again rarely if ever gets updates). I DO NOT want MiUI, ZenUI, FunOS, etc. etc. I just want an Android device, plain and simple. (Yeah, I can “root” the device and install third-party stuff, but history shows longer-term we cannot depend on this).

    3. Android Spies on us. Why give them more opportunity to do so.

    My Android devices are Network Bastioned when connected to my own network. Plus, my primary SIM cards have NEVER been inserted into an Android device. My experiments with Kitkat long ago with a prepaid SIM card revealed just how much Google sucks out of my identity and all those I potentially connect to once they have access to my phone data.

    For cellular voice and SMS, I use legacy Nokia S3/S4 “dumb” phones. Unfortunately these (real, not China-Fake) devices are getting harder and harder to find. Used/broken devices are being hoarded to scavenge replacement parts. Costs are skyrocketing for these legacy devices out here in SE Asia. Fortunately, 2G is still supported out there and will be for many years.

  12. I want a small, slim bare-bones feature phone that serves as the ‘base unit’ serving up a PAN to connect the extras. The extras would include a large screen (with self contained battery) with optional dockable qwerty keyboard, heavy duty battery module (that would have to attach to the base unit), then maybe some of the frivolities like projector, speakers, etc.

  13. Connectors are more expensive, especially ones that would work at the high speeds that current phone interfaces use. In addition, each module would use different standards and bridging to a common interface means more converter chips and more expense.

    In a cellphone, the screen is going to run on some flavor of LVDS, camera may be on SPI or embedded USB, sensors may run on I2C, audio wants to speak I2S, WiFi/BT will go for SDIO and/or USB, with a possible I2S/PCM connection for bluetooth…

    Making all of these removable means hardening the interfaces to ESD, worrying about the impedance discontinuity of the connector, keeping enough GPIO connections to support whatever module is inserted, managing power, protecting power contacts from short-circuit….

    Phones are integrated because it’s not just a little cheaper and easier- it’s significantly easier and cheaper.

    1. why do you assume that you HAVE to bridge anything? modular doesn’t necessarily mean universally interchangeable modules you might as well have a modular phone with one LVSD slot for the screen and a few assorted slots with a dedicated interface for the different modules like a normal phone would.

  14. Question: Why did the hackable __________ fail to go mainstream?
    Answer: The average Joe/Jane consumer didn’t want a hackable __________ because he/she didn’t know how to use any of the hackable features. They just wanted something that worked.

    If a hackable/modular smartphone was made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Arduino, or Adafruit and marketed directly to the hacker community then they might be able to niche a small profit out of them. A large company like Motorola, Samsung, or Google using economies of scale to market them directly to novice consumers is a recipe for failure.

  15. Why would any sane company market a modular phone, when they are making them more and more non-modular and unserviceable? Why they want to replace a SIM card with preprogrammed chip on board? To make one stuck with service provider, make it harder to change one and to basically redo simlock. Why some top models have non-removable batteries? Just because average user is not savvy enough to replace dead battery himself, so he either will buy new phone or go to company-approved battery replacement shop. Why on one side we can make bulletproof glass that protects heads of states from would-be assassins but we can’t make phone digitizer survive a fall from table? Well, we could make it more fall-proof, or replace glass with plastic, but that would make phones too good…

    I only wonder, when they will start making cars that explode day after warranty ends…

    1. The average user CAN replace a battery (it’s just a matter of pulling a cover, no tools required, even blind people can replace it), but he also wants the latest iPhone/Galaxy/whatever. So why not lock the user in a service bubble to make more money?

      I still have my old Nokia 3310 and Gameboy Color. Both survived a lot of falls and work perfectly; the 3310’s battery can be replaced in five seconds and the GBC has a lot of I/O (including an SPI port and the entire CPU bus) broken out, making extra “modules” possible (the Gameboy Camera and the unofficial GBDSO oscilloscope-in-a-cartridge are two great examples of this concept). On the other hand, today’s stuff is completely locked down, unserviceable and non-modular. And people are happy to use this stuff, too.

      1. When battery is non-removable, replacing it requires some tools and partial disassembly. Blind person might have problems with that. But almost blind one can manage fine – I know…
        In past 3 years I did 1 phone transplant, three battery replacements, two screen replacements and one microphone surgery. Average Joe would rather buy new model than attempt anything more complicated than battery replacement, when battery is removable. And most of them don’t even have tools necessary…

    2. Modern cars do seem to be designed such that after 5 years they become too expensive to maintain, especially high end cars like BMW and Mercedes where spare parts and labor are very expensive. They just have to last long enough for a 4 year lease and then for someone to buy it while it still works. It used to be that Mercedes were engineered to last for 20 years but nowadays longevity is not a selling point. Generally, the drive train will last a long time but bits of plastic start to break expensively after a few years, For example, on a high end BMW the passenger seat sensor used to break after 5 years. The part was not too expensive at around $200 but it cost around $1500 in labor to fit a new one. On the engine there was a coolant pipe whose seal perishes after around 5 years and the whole engine has to be taken apart to fix it at a cost of $5000+. High end manufacturers have no incentive to make the cars last longer. Their customers want the latest and greatest technology and a 5 year old BMW has less of it than a new low end Ford because technology is moving so fast. Cars are becoming consumables.

      It is the same for phones. Virtually nobody wants a modular phone. What they want is a phone that meets their needs. Also, there are disincentives for manufacturers to make modular phones. They would end up selling fewer phones. Technology moves too fast to make upgradeability worthwhile. What would be more interesting would be the ability to order a custom phone. It wouldn’t be modular but would have exactly what you want. Want a large battery? It would be built with one. Want a better camera? You got it and so on. This doesn’t require modularity in the sense of a user being able to plug and unplug modules. It would require flexible manufacturing. I think this is more likely to happen than modular phones although the rate of change in technology makes custom phones less likely as they would rapidly become out of date.

  16. Let’s turn the question on its ear: How many modules can you add to an existing cell phone? There’s more ways to make a modular cell phone than stuffing everything in one case.

    Want more memory? Swap in an SD card. (The version of Android in my current phone won’t let me put app data on it, though, which is rather annoying.)
    Want a larger battery? Plug an external pack into the USB plug.
    Wish your cell phone had big, loud speakers? Pair them over Bluetooth.
    Need a Geiger counter for your phone? Another device that can connect over USB.
    Looking to take some really good pictures? OK, at this point, I’m grabbing my DSLR and skipping the phone.

    So, an existing cell phone can already be improved with add on modules as it is. And I’m not sure how much of an advantage it would be to stuff all the modules in one case vs having them connected over cables and wireless.

    1. The advantages: not having bulky external accessories, no risk of losing them when attached to the phone, much better power efficiency (especially for USB packs with inefficient and useless boost converters vs. directly connected replacement batteries), no battery dependency for wireless accessories.
      The disadvantages: modules have to be very small and thin (driving up their cost), companies want to make closed proprietary standards (increasing costs furthermore), risk of losing them when not attached, less user-friendly than a standard all-in-one phone.

  17. The big problem with phones is imo not the lack of modularity, but the problem with missing drivers, closed source, locked boot loaders, etc, etc, meaning that at given phone, only a couple of years old, can be hopeless outdated, and left with no possibility to upgrade the software, despite the fact that the hardware is still absolutely acceptable.

    So I would rather that it was me that actually owned my own hardware, and I could install an OS of my preference, just like I can install a Linux on a old pc.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment. Perhaps we need to create an opensource phone! Its Linux Kernel would have to be mainlined and GPU would need opensource drivers. But I imagine that it would sell like hot cakes to nerds, and those that believe in open source & free/libre software. The phone itself doesn’t need to be top of the line….it just needs to stick to libre software principles and be ‘good enough’ feature wise.

      1. Yah, opensource modularish one would do a lot better because it has the potential for SELF or COMMUNITY sourced upgrade, no chance the manufacturer will get bored of it in a year and it’s another piece of landfill, even if it had now unobtanium upgrades at release.

    1. I did. I got one of the Compact Flash adapters that had its own bit of storage to put some apps into, for saving main storage/RAM space. I plugged a 128 megabyte CF in and could keep a huge ebook library on it.

  18. What the phone with the one at a time modules for big speakers, high quality camera etc needs is a slider keyboard module.

    What’s done away with real keyboards on phones is not lack of demand, it’s that the manufacturers just would never put keyboards on their *best* phones with the highest resolution screens.

    It’s like how Ford never made a V8 available in the 2 door Explorer Sport, then discontinued the model due to low sales. It didn’t sell because people wanted a V8 engine in a SPORT vehicle, not a V6.

    Strawberry Shasta died the same way. Stores wouldn’t stock it at all or would only have it in limited quantities for limited times, then rationalized not carrying it “because it doesn’t sell a lot”. So Shasta hasn’t made Strawberry soda for a long time, but does make the awful Kiwi Strawberry, which for some reason many stores don’t have the same hate for as they did for Strawberry. Applying the same strategy of availability for that flavor as they do the others lead to enough sales to keep stocking it. Had they done the same for Strawberry, Shasta would still be making it.

    YOU CAN’T SELL WHAT YOU *REFUSE* TO OFFER FOR SALE! If it exists but is made nearly impossible to buy, it won’t sell in large numbers.

    The buying public rarely buys what they aren’t told repeatedly exists, nor do they buy what’s not practically set right in front of them. Pontiac’s GTO import from Australia failed to sell well because General Motors flat out would not advertise it. For its debut year, GM introduced an all new lineup for Pontiac. They sent out fancy packages to millions of people (I got one for some reason) with the line “Meet the New Pontiacs”. Eagerly, I opened it up, expecting to find information about the new GTO. There was NOTHING about the GTO in the package! I knew right then the car was doomed. For some reason some people at GM had decided they no longer wanted the GTO and would *make it fail* so they could claim “There’s no market for a rear wheel drive, 2 door muscle car.”. Easiest way to hit that goal was simply spend no money on promoting it.

    This works the opposite way too, generating an artificial popularity for a product by *always* promoting it heavily and having it at a lower price than other products. See pepperoni as a pizza topping. It’s not the best selling because it’s actually super popular or the best tasting. It’s the best selling because it’s always on some sale or special, lower priced and *always* advertised. Pick any pizza advertisement where toppings aren’t specifically called out and most of the time the images will be of a pepperoni pizza. The idea that pepperoni = pizza and pizza = pepperoni has become entrenched in the public mind.

    If Samsung had a version of the S8 with a slide out keyboard *and everything else identical* – it would sell very well. But for all the slider phones Samsung ever made, they were always lower spec than their other phones of the same generation.

  19. Modularity at this level ends up tying a system to the state of the art at the time the modular interfaces are set down. Its all well and good to have a system of interchangeable parts, but going forward, all of those interchangeable parts have to be backward compatible with the initial releases in some way. Calls to mind Sega 32X and Sega CD, both flops.

    1. Mattel hawking the Aquarius had a tagline “Whatever happens in the future fits in here” referring to the expansion slot…. donnnnnnnn’t think you’re gonna get very far phoning Mattel and insisting they sell you a BD-ROM for it.

    2. It’s called “standards”…. ISA.. VESA… PCI… USB… they all had to start somewhere…. they had their time… then something else came along – maybe even with backward compatibility integrated.

      1. Yeah, I get standards. You may set a standard, and you may build new parts with backward compatibility to existing standards, but what you CAN’T do is go back in time and make the old parts (that almost certainly are slower or less capable) as fast and feature rich as the new parts. So, while you can continue to support the compatibility with those older parts, their mere presence is going to handicap overall performance.

  20. They haven’t really failed, per se, they’ve just been supplanted by mass produced hardware that moves out at an alarming rate. PuzzlePhone is a good example: they’re still being actively developed. I wouldn’t call it vaporware yet, as there’s strong community support for these kinds of devices.

  21. Modular phones failed as an avenue of revenue for the producers due to the disruption of their “planned obsolescence” business model that has infected the phone industry like tumors. That’s why they didn’t pursue the technology.

  22. HAHA wants a modular phone not happening real reason ??? Security and governmental insecurity.

    They don’t want you taking out your battery
    They don’t want you changing your camera
    They don’t want you to have optional wifi boards with different HW ID..

    Blame regulating governments on this.

  23. The modular phone was always a red herring. Equating ‘modular’ with ‘repairable’ means they could avoid having conversations about making phones more repairable by standards co-operation.

    I dont want to be able to swap out my camera on the fly, I want to be able to go to a repair shop and have some teenager replace my camera module with a better one for $10 with a consistent set of tools between manufacturers. I want small businesses profiting off of my laziness. And then I want the old camera to go to a factory where it is deconstructed for recycling.

    1. These small businesses must pay a lot of royalties, licenses and other stuff to manufacturers in order to be able to replace your phone’s camera (legally), and they have to buy the replacement camera from them too. So your money does not go to the shop’s teenagers, but rather to the manufacturer.

  24. I want a rotary dial, a candlestick form factor, and a heptagonal screen on my phone. None of the off-the-shelf models currently provide all of those features in one device. Obviously I need a modular phone.

  25. I was really looking forward to the modular phone! Because nobody makes a phone with all of the features I want, and I’d like to not have to throw away my old phone when I need to update just part of it!
    Repairs would be a simple matter of swapping out a part or two.

    Once the phone is just a frame and a bunch of parts, what are phone manufacturers? Irrelevant, that’s what! Instead, you have chip makers supporting consumers directly, and no need for Apple or Samsung, or LG or anybody else to sell you a “phone”.

    Project Ara seemed to have all the answers I wanted, but it never shipped.
    On those other “modular” phones mentioned, you had to remove one part to replace it with another, and all of the parts were only available from one manufacturer. Ideally, it would be like the PC where there are lots of different folks selling different parts at competitive prices that you can swap out at will. And as newer parts come out and older parts become less attractive, they could be sold off or otherwise downstreamed for tasks that didn’t need such a high spec thing.

    A side effect of the modular phone that I was really looking forward to was that YOU COULD PUT THE PARTS IN THINGS THAT WEREN’T PHONES! If my phone can snap in a new camera, or radio module, or card reader, or thumbprint sensor, you could also have laptop computers with the same slots that use the same parts! Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to update my laptop in ways other than just adding some RAM and maybe swapping out an HDD or adding a single PCI Express card? (Oh, wait, they took the PCI Express slots out in the last gen, didn’t they?)

    I was really hoping for a revolution. The opening up of expandability for the portables market would have been amazing. Instead, we just end up with more walled gardens, more glued-shut cases that we can’t repair, and more ways that we don’t own things that we paid real money for.

    1. Maybe we should think bottom-up instead of top-down? In recent years we got flood of “Arduino accessories” of various kind, we can (and I believe HAD wrote about people who did) assemble an exploded smartphone model, which could not be pocketable. We need a miniaturization breakthrough in the world of “didactic” electronic modules, perhaps on flexible PCBs for low profile, easier, high pitch, low profile connection to main interconnection infrastructure (another, passive, flex PCB?). Once we have that, we can play with shallow tin boxes, or anything new in the future.

  26. Hate to break it to you all, but modular phones per se do exist, and are great, I have one!

    It’s not got upgradeable parts (yet?), but it is modular, they sell all the spares, are designed to be opened and repaired by anyone, and come with instructions for this; I can change the screen in 30 seconds with no tools on mine. It’s pretty expensive, for average performance, but all the parts are sourced from conflict free mines and aren’t put together by children in sweat shops, so it’s the actual cost – if you get a cheap phone, somebody is paying for it, and you can bet good money it’s the people at the bottom of the chain…

  27. My last phone purchase was dictated by the fact I needed a phone Right Now. So my choice was immediately limited to what was on display in the shop.

    My last phone was destroyed by water ingress (from rain) damaging the LCD screen, so immediately, ruggedisation was high on the agenda.

    Add to this I sometimes go into rural areas where phone coverage is patchy, a phone where I can connect an external antenna directly will trump any phone that lacks such sockets. (… and will outperform inductive/capacative coupling cradles any day.)

    There were exactly 0 phones on display that were modular, and 3 had external antenna sockets, hence I wound up with the ZTE T83 I have now.

  28. It failed because it was implemented in a dumb manner and with pointless uninteresting modules.
    Now if it would be marketable if it was done in a more sensible manner is still an open question.
    If you for instance could opt to insert a much better battery while making the device 3 or so millimeter thicker then people would like that I expect. In the same manner if you had a better camera module available that would not alter the device’s appearance but would only be an additional cost which you could purchase later, that would also be welcomed I imagine.
    Or a higher resolution screen maybe.
    Point is that options must be available and for a doable price. And when used have those not significantly alter the device in other areas.

  29. Moto Z was frigging +600usd, so it would have been at least 600-700eur here in Finland.
    I was interested in the phone, but it was more than I have spent on all the phones I have ever had.
    So, it was interesting but I’m too much of a cheap bastard to buy it.
    Ware there a ~250eur phone with some expandability (just give me GPIO!) it could be a viable candidate for me to buy.

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