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Lenovo promises modular phones have a future with Moto

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For a time, the dream of a modular, upgradable phone seemed dead on arrival. First there was the LG G5 – a handset that our reviews editor said was “the most interesting phone of the year”. Interesting, but ultimately struggling to sell the concept, given that only two modules were made, and shops are now bundling them aggressively to get rid of stock. Then there was Google’s entry into the area with Project Ara: killed off before a single handset was developed.

What’s interesting about Project Ara is that it started out life within the Advanced Technology and Projects team at Motorola Mobility. Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, but kept the ATAP group. So it’s something of an irony that it should be a Moto phone, under the Lenovo umbrella, that gets the concept dead right.

I reviewed both the Moto Z and Moto Z Play for Alphr, and both are excellent handsets. Crucially, they’ve managed to integrate modules in a perfect way. While the LG G5 requires you to actually turn off the phone to attach a module, the Moto Z family lets you just clip them onto the back. They’re held in place by (surprisingly tough) magnets, and are detected instantly, allowing them to immediately function as part of the phone.

There are two small issues with them: first, you can only use one at a time (a pain if, say, you want to project a movie and use the enhanced speaker); and second, there are only five modules currently available.

The latter of these problems is now going to be fixed. According to a briefing reported by CNET, Moto Mods director John Touvannas has said the company intends to release at least 12 Moto Mods per year. Heavy-lifting for this will continue to come from third parties, as they have for the existing mods. But it won’t just be companies such as Hasselblad and JBL as with existing mods: Lenovo is also hoping to incentivise crowdfunding entrepreneurs via a partnership with Indiegogo. In short, Lenovo’s favourite ideas will get a free Moto Z and mod development kit in order to make those dreams a reality.

The elephant in the room, of course, is what will become of these mods in the long term. The Moto Z is relatively new to the UK, only getting a European release in September (although it first appeared in the US back in the summer). That means that we’re likely fewer than 12 months away from the next flagship Lenovo handset. Will existing mods work with future smartphones? That’s Lenovo’s intention (“Moto Mods developed today are designed to work with future generations of Moto Z phones,” the company wrote in June), but intentions are crucially not the same as guarantees. It would be very surprising if the next generation of Moto phones dropped the feature (the handset is likely all but set in stone by now), but if sales of mods don’t pick up, it wouldn’t be wholly surprising to see a radical rethink by 2018.

Not that that’s any reason not to admire the intent, or purchase the mods if they seem useful. It’s just worth remembering that with technology – and especially phones – the term future-proof is extremely relative.

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