Snap out of it! Will we ever love modular phones?

This week’s big news in Android is the return of the ‘daddy’ of the OS, Andy Rubin. He was the guy who created the Android software and sold it to Google in 2005. Then he stayed with the search giant till 2014, after which he departed to start a firm called Essential. Its mission? To make a new top end phone.

Well, now that device is here. It’s immodestly called the Phone, and it’s a blatant attempt to take on the iPhone, Pixel, and Galaxy at the top of the market. Thus, it comes with 5.7-inch ‘infinity’ display, Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB storage and a 13 megapixel camera. Oh, and it’s made from titanium and ceramic.

But here’s the really interesting bit: it’s modular.

Yes, the Phone features a slot for snap-on extras. At the moment they include a clip-on 360-degree camera and a charging dock. These accessories attach via a magnetic connector with wireless data transfer on the rear.

Now, this was unexpected. After all, modular phones have been tried before. They’ve mostly failed.

You can see the appeal in principle. With modular extras, people can customize their phones how they want. And they can keep them for longer too. Want a better camera? Don’t wait till the next $699 phone comes along. Just replace your existing device with a new lens.

Ironically, one of the most high profile modular phone projects in recent times came from Google itself. That was Project Ara, which it unveiled in 2013. The idea was to create a phone made entirely of smaller blocks you could fit together like Lego.

And these blocks would not just be cameras and batteries and hard drives. Buried in the detail of Google’s plan was a proposal to make one of its clip-on modules a pepper spray. Seriously.

However, after some live trials, Google canned the whole thing. The project’s lead engineer Rafa Camargo was forced to admit that “users didn’t care.”

But this stubborn ‘modular phone’ idea will not die. At 2016’s Mobile World Congress, LG received a lot of attention for its G5 phone, which offered the ability to clip on a better battery, camera or speaker.

A few months later, Motorola unveiled the Moto Z with a magnetic back, with slots for an expanded battery, audio speaker, and pocket-size projector.

And now there’s the ‘Phone’. What’s laudable about Rubin’s modular phone vision is how it fits with his open standards view of tech. He says he wants “a new notion of what an accessory is, and to make it as future-proof as possible.”

That’s why Essential plans to open-source the docking system so others can build cool add-ons for it too. It’s a lovely idea, even if history suggests its chances are slim. After all, we all like Lego.

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