Block by block

There has been a flurry of modular devices over the last few years, with mixed success: will they ever catch on or, at some point, will manufacturers cut their losses?

HP Elite Slice

PCs and smartphones come standard with a lot of features most users don’t ever utilise. Modular devices, which allow for different elements to be easily removed, swapped, and upgraded, promise to solve this problem.

Not every smartphone owner needs a 20 megapixel camera, while others would find it indispensable. Not every PC owner needs a disk drive anymore, while others still use DVDs in day-to-day business. Modular devices allow customers to pick and choose a set-up customised to their needs.

The modular hardware is designed to have one main board, whether it’s in a phone or a PC, which works with or without other components and circuits.

Many of the large hardware manufacturers and tech companies have taken a stab at creating a device that allows users to customise their experience. It should be noted here that most of the mainstream experiments are not completely modular, but merely have removable parts.

Not all of them have been successful. Many projects, such as Razor’s Project Christine or Google’s Project Ara, have not made it past concept stage.

Others have released a product that failed to gain mass appeal and quickly back-tracked on their decision.

For example, last year LG’s flagship smartphone, the G5, had a removable battery and a host of optional add-on accessories. At the time, LG said if customers bought the extra fittings, they would fit future models. This turned out not to be the case and the company made over a $200 million loss on the phone. This year’s G6 features an aluminium unibody with no place to add the mods.

Acer Revo Build Acer Revo Build
On the other end of the scale, Lenovo – which now owns the Motorola brand – launched the modular Moto Z smartphone last year, and earlier this year announced an extensive list of new mods it says will work with the Moto Z and future models. Lenovo reported relative success with over one million units sold in the second half of 2016.

However, smartphones aren’t the only electronic devices getting the modular treatment, Asus, Acer, HP and others all have released modular PCs in recent years.

Enter the age of customisation

Acer’s operations and product manager for Africa, Michele Torrente, says the mini PC segment of the desktop market has been one of the few that has shown worldwide growth across all brands during the overall decline of the desktop market. Modular PCs normally have a mini PC as the base model, and Acer recently introduced a modular mini PC called the Revo Build.

“I don’t believe this is a fad as consumers are looking for devices that are flexible and cater to their ever-changing needs and the concept of a modular PC is ideal for this type of lifestyle,” says Torrente.

She says the Revo Build, the first modular computer by Acer, has been surprisingly successful and popular among earlier adopters.

The Revo Build base contains the CPU, memory, RAM and the operating system. Storage, graphic cards, and other functions come in the form of a block that is ‘built’ on top of the base.

John Geypen, HP’s area category manager of commercial for southern and central Africa, says that the HP Elite Slice has had limited appeal in South Africa since its February launch because it’s relatively niche, but the company is on track to hit its sales targets this year. The Elite Slice has a base model and separate expansion models that allow for different client needs to be emphasised.

Geypen has confidence that the space will expand as technology allows for solutions to become tidier and smaller.

The main benefit for customers interested in buying modular devices, says Geypen, is that they only pay for what they need. “A lot of customers don’t use optical drives any more, for example, and the audio module works brilliantly for conferences, but if you’re not going to use it for that, then there’s no need.”

He hopes manufacturers keep experimenting in this space. “Some things don’t work and bomb while others are unexpected successes.”

The modular PCs and smartphones that have featured in the mainstream market all require customers to buy into one particular ecosystem and lock them in. Future mods will only ever fit that specific brand there's also no guarantee that the brand will continue to make them or get popular component manufacturers to create mods that will support the base model.

Group effort required

The technical process of making all components work with the base model and each other is complicated. It requires extensive testing, which pushes prices on the mods and the base model up. This means that the units sometimes end up costing more than if a regular device was bought – as was the case with the LG G5.

Ideally, customers would want to buy a mod, such as a projector, sound system, or camera, with the knowledge that it would work with whatever system or brand they choose to upgrade to in the future. This would require collaboration between players in the PC market and other component manufacturers to standardise how components fit into one another and how systems work.

A lot of modular devices are touted as being for emerging markets and the environmentally conscious because they're built to last longer than traditional electronics. The separate parts can be upgraded one at a time, which would lead to less money being spent and less e-waste.

However, only when manufacturers can guarantee that their modular products will be around for more than a few years will this become a viable reality. Time will tell.