Every electronics company dreams of starting a new platform that other firms adopt and build on. It’s one of the few paths to riches in electronics (think: iPhone, Android, Blu-Ray, CDMA, Steam, Playstation). Check out extensive writing by my friend Michael Cusumano and his colleague Annabelle Gawer, such as this article in Sloan Management Review. (May be behind a paywall.) Although even if successful, the originator may have to make so many deals that it does not capture much rent. (Think: Android again, Blu-Ray again, Wi-Fi, 4G, HDTV, etc.) And doing it successfully is very hard, even for large companies.
A related dream is modularity without sacrificing performance. This has been discussed for cell phones for many years, although in the past I have been skeptical. This article, though, sounds as if Motorola has a chance at doing both. Technically, it sounds like a good concept, if they can pull it off as well as the article suggests. Of course, technical excellence is never sufficient to become a standard. And Motorola, with all its ownership turmoil in recent years, is not very credible. But I’m heartened to think that the goal of a modular smartphone may be technically realistic, which would be great for consumers. (It’s important that Moto is not talking about creating a new operating system or app platform. Just look at Nokia and Microsoft to see how hard that is.)
But the Moto Z is really just a base station, a mannequin onto which you drape the clothes you pick. That’s good for users, and it’s good for developers too, who don’t have to convince Samsung or Apple (or Motorola) to put their tech into an upcoming phone. They can just make a mod and sell it to anyone who’s interested—easy enough now that smartphone components are cheap, sophisticated, and ubiquitous. “It’s as though someone dumped a shipping container worth of Lego on the floor,” venture capitalist Benedict Evans wrote in 2015. Motorola’s goal is to be the hub of an ecosystem of mod-builders, clicking components together so you can click them onto your phone.Everything depends on Motorola becoming that hub. The company is great at cell phone innovation—it invented the damn thing and then made the StarTac and the Razr and the first Droid. But the company is not so great at actually making money. Meanwhile, Google’s Project Ara, which has done more than any other project to get people interested in modular phones, isn’t close to releasing a real product. The modular phones that do exist are either small stakes, like the Fairphone and Puzzlephone, or flops like the LG G5. “I suspect we’ll see more experimentation with this stuff over the next year or two,” Jackdaw’s Dawson says, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if both Motorola and LG eventually backed away from this approach.” He cautions that without a standard for mods that’s widely adopted, Samsung is really “the only Android vendor big enough to be able to create an ecosystem of its own around its phone hardware.”
PS. Judging by my past behavior, I personally might still stick with Apple’s iPhone walled garden. Foolish me, but I no longer have much patience to learn new operating systems.