Updated: October 7, 2016 12:32:45 am
Over the last few years, we have seen innovation slow down to a crawl in the mobile phone industry. Almost every phone launched feels like an incremental upgrade, offering maybe one or two features that really stand out from its competitors or even the previous generations. In times where we have become so accustomed to accepting average updates, some manufacturers are really trying to push the envelope of design and functionality, and joining that movement today is Motorola. Decades ago, they revolutionised the cellphone market with the Moto Razr, a phone that found favour amongst every kind of user, be it a grandmother or a teenager. After years of turmoil, Motorola is once again finding itself as the company driven by innovation as they introduce us to their new lineup dubbed Z, a modular system of devices.
Ever since the smartphone race began, the goal has been to put more and more of the tools of daily use into a singular device. We no longer carry an mp3 player, a camera and a phone for vacations. Our cellphone suffices for the most part. The phone is a good camera, but it’s not a DSLR. It plays mp3s, but it can’t adequately power audiophile grade headphones. In their current state, phones seem to have hit a dead end.
A System that’s More than just a Phone
Currently, the Moto Z series has a speaker Mod (made by JBL), a pico-projector mod, capable of sharp images of up to 70-inches made by Motorola and a camera mod made by the legendary Hasselblad. They have also partnered up with Incipio for battery pack mods that offer extra battery backup. These mods by themselves significantly extend the capabilities of the phone they are attached to. The JBL mod offers significantly better audio quality than what you would get out of the speakerphone. The Moto Insta-Share Projector mod turns the phone into a mini projector, great for screening photos or little vacation films. The highlight partnership, however, is with Hasselblad, where the two create a mod that offers true 10x optical zoom (25-250mm) with the resulting image maintaining its 12-megapixel resolution.
A system Built Ground-Up
Jim Thiede, Senior Marketing and Product Management Professional, Motorola Mobility, explained that the Mod system has been in development at Motorola internally for over two years. Their goal was to create an eco-system and not a one-off product and therefore, they have worked very closely with their partners in developing the mods, ensuring that the mod adhered to the brand and design philosophies of both the companies. In essence, neither form nor function would be compromised in the name of either.
A System Built for the Future
At the very core of the mod-system is a 18-pin proprietary connector on the back of the Moto Z phones (Z, Z Play, Z Force). This connector, Jim says, has been built keeping the future in mind. He said that they wanted to ensure that people could always exchange and share mods, and that they would just work seamlessly regardless of which phone they were being used on. He said the connector is capable of transmitting 40 types data transmissions, including CPU access. The Hasselblad camera mod, for example, does not have its own processing chip, so the sensor (a 1/2.3” unit) sends the RAW data to the phone’s CPU for processing.
A System That’s Open
One of the primary reasons we never saw much coming out of the LG or the Nokia camp was that their systems didn’t account for future growth nor did they create a platform that was open. Motorola has opened up the Mods platform to anyone who would like to develop for it by releasing what they call the MDK, a hardware and software development kit. This means anyone can create mods for the Moto Z family, and in case they’re looking for authenticity, Motorola is also going to be running a “certified by Motorola” program.
The Future and Possibilities
The computing power within most cellphones today is staggering, there’s no denying that. Combine that with an open-mods ecosystem and we could soon be looking at functionality previously never thought of in a cellphone. We could be looking at mods that add an additional e-ink screen so that you can read your e-books without hurting your eyes. Medical applications could find some serious benefits in the form of not just a blood-sugar level indicator, but also a mod that could detect various kinds of diseases. Photographers could benefit from camera mods that bring prime lenses to the cellphone, a luxury currently only enjoyed by DSLR users. Audiophiles would benefit from a mod that acts as a high-quality DAC, capable of powering even the most demanding headphones with full fidelity.
A System that Learns from the Past
We have seen companies attempt modular phones before, but none gathered any steam. It could be said that the price point of the phone and the mods were a factor, but what was also clear was the lack of clarity on a future road-map. Up until now, LG, Nokia and even Sony (with their rather large QX100) have failed because they all tried to keep the mods eco-system a closed one, keeping everything proprietary so that users would be forced to only buy their products. Motorola has instead not only chosen to partner up with other brands of significant value, but also opened up the eco-system to independent developers. Jim mentioned that Lenovo currently has a program running that would offer up to a million dollars in funding to those who come up with really innovative ideas for mods. Motorola is learning from the mistakes of its competitor’s pasts and really opening up the doors for the next stage of mobile evolution.
We are starting to finally hit the limits of what we can do with the limited space that lies inside a slim cellphone. Apple justified removing the headphone jack, stating it was the only way to make space for a bigger battery and the Taptic engine. Mods allow your existing phone to be more than what it is, to turn a core device into either a great camera or a movie projector. It could even be converted to a lifesaving medical device with enough thought and innovation. We now pack so much computing power into our phones that it almost seems wasteful to utilize it for just gaming. The modular system could truly unlock the potential all this computing power offers, all within an ecosystem that only grows with time.
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