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With the arrival of the Moto Z the discussion about modularity has fired up again. But there’s a side of the question that goes beyond the simple extrapolation that Moto Mods are modules. What exactly is modularity and are the LG G5 or Moto Z truly modular phones like the Project Ara phone? Or are they something else entirely?

During Motorola’s press conference, I don’t actually recall anyone saying the word “module” (or at least not stressing it). But the marketing term “Moto Mods” certainly brings modularity to mind while conveniently tapping into the trendiness of the smartphone world’s latest gimmick. But there’s a justifiable question mark hanging over the Moto Z as to whether it really is a modular phone or just a phone with attachable accessories like any other – simply with a funkier attachment mechanism.

Extending functionality

Take the Moto Z’s battery pack. How is this really any different to a Mophie Juice Pack or Apple’s extended battery case for the iPhone? Both of those attach to a smartphone in a similar way and do exactly the same thing: simply extend the existing battery life of the phone. The same can be said of the replaceable back cover – it’s not a module so much as a modification (perhaps this is really what Moto Mods is shorthand for?).

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The Moto Insta-Share Projector follows the same-same-but-different logic, doing nothing extra compared to an existing projector bar being more streamlined. Does having it snug with the phone really make it modular? How is it functionally different from a cabled projector? Is modularity just about giving the appearance of a unified design? The LG G5 and Project Ara phone take a similar approach to design but there’s obviously more to modules than seamless integration.

Defining modularity

So let’s take a look at the definition of modularity, as obvious as that may seem. A quick Google search provides the following: “Modularity is the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined.” According to this definition the Moto Z is not a truly modular phone in the same way as Project Ara.

Modularity is the degree to which a system's components may be separated and recombined.

project ara

An element of newness has to come in here as well, as without it there is no real reason to disassemble your smartphone in the first place. Here’s another definition: “Modules are divided based on functionality [and] new functionalities may be easily programmed in separate modules.” So each module should arguably provide a new and functionally different purpose.

Adding new functionality

Modules should arguably provide a new and functionally different purpose rather than simply extend existing functions.

But all of the Moto Mods attach to the outside of the Moto Z without requiring any kind of recombination. At least the LG G5 is pulled part, modified and then recombined. But both the G5 and Moto Z are fully functional smartphones on their own with attachments that extend existing functionality rather than fundamentally replacing existing functions with something new (as Project Ara does).

motomods

The rumored Moto Mod camera module (pictured above) would be an exception to this, as it reportedly includes an additional camera lens with 10x optical zoom – completely replacing the Moto Z’s camera rather than extending the existing camera lens’ functionality. The same can be said of the JBL speaker “module” – because it fully replaces the existing Moto Z speakers. With this is mind then, is the Moto Z actually a more modular phone than the LG G5?

It’s a gray area for sure, and one without a simple answer (if it even really requires one). But there’s something about the LG G5’s disassembly that somehow makes it feel more modular than the Moto Z, even if the “separation and recombination” definition of modularity tends to favor the Moto Z more. The LG G5’s Hi-Fi Plus DAC perhaps fits both definitions of modularity the best, as it requires disassembly and recombination that fully replaces existing functionality rather than just extending it.

LG G5 B&O DAC

Until the Project Ara phone arrives we won’t have a truly modular experience to compare these devices to. Whether we’re being a little premature with attaching this label to these devices probably doesn’t really matter. But, like the “metal” LG G5, it’s important to scratch beneath the surface of catchy marketing and make sure what we’re calling a spade is actually a spade.

How would you define modularity? What do you think is the most modular phone?