Modular phones are back! LG’s G5, Moto Z and Google’s Project Ara are reviving a concept that – OK – was probably never here in the first place. Will the pieces fall into place? Tim Green weighs the arguments…

Everyone agrees that phone design has become boring. They all look the same. They all do the same things.

So what would you like to do with your handset that you can’t do now?

Here’s an idea: how about using it to fire pepper spray into the eye of your mugger?

  Google is talking to is a mod firm that wants to let you use a single device to film your attacker, burn his eyeballs and then call the police.

I’m not joking. Buried in the detail of Google’s plan to revise its all-but-forgotten Project Ara experiment was a proposal to make one of its clip-on modules a pepper spray.

How weird is that?

If you’re hazy on Project Ara, let me refresh your memory.

Google unveiled the concept in 2013. The idea was to create a phone made entirely of smaller blocks you could fit together like Lego. Google handed the job of building it to its Motorola division – which it later sold – and Moto teamed up with a startup called Phonebloks, which had already started work on a prototype.

Press and analysts were intrigued, if a little sceptical. In a sea of bland rectangular touchscreens here, at last, was something genuinely different.

And yet. Would these ‘mods’ (short for modular) with their physical connectors be genuinely reliable? Would the average lazy user really crave the ability to swap out their phone processor?

Well, observers were right to have doubts. Google announced and then canned an Ara trial in Puerto Rico. Then it all went quiet. Had Ara been – pardon the pun – dismembered?

Actually no. Just last month, the project’s lead engineer Rafa Camargo revealed a new build at Google’s IO conference in California. Ara v2 is less ambitious than before – Google has conceded that barely anyone wants to swap out core components like the processor – but it is real.

Camargo said: “Our initial prototype was modularising everything…just to find out users didn’t care.”

The new build will go out to developers in the autumn and to consumers next year.

At present it offers four modules: speaker, camera, e-ink display and expanded memory. Not much. But predictably, Google is depending on smart developers to bring their ideas to the party.

Which brings us back to pepper spray. Yes, among the partners that Google is talking to is a mod firm that wants to let you have a single device for filming your attacker, burning his eyeballs and then calling the police.

I should add Google is also considering mods for a car key fob and an alcohol breathalyser.

The search giant wants to stimulate a vibrant ecosystem in mod making. It is trying to make the design specs simple so everyone from a bedroom hobbyist to a multinational brand can participate. It will also launch an online mod store and a certification programme to combat sub-standard products.

It’s all very ambitious. In the past people customised their phones by snapping on a trendy fascia. Later, personalisation moved to the software – wallpapers, apps etc. Could the Ara be the start of a new phase?

It’s not alone. At Mobile World Congress, LG won plaudits for its G5 phone which offers the ability to clip on a better battery, camera or speaker.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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And just days ago, Motorola unveiled the Moto Z. It has a magnetic back, to which you can easily clip on extra ‘Moto Mods’. Most are cosmetic, but there is an expanded battery, audio speaker and – most exciting – a pocket-size projector.

I think they will all find it tough to succeed. Consumers are lazy. They’re also quixotic. Committing to the mod concept means committing to one platform (otherwise all the extra expenditure on mods is wasted when you upgrade).

But at least it’s something new. And in the case of Ara, the mods even use voice recognition.

“Fire pepper spray!”

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