Crowd-created Moto Mods highlight creativity, demand limits

To further the damaged cause of the modular phone, Lenovo and Verizon teamed up with Indiegogo to launch crowdfunded campaigns for Moto Mods. Three attracted significant interest but others attracted no funds at all.

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With LG ditching its half-baked "Friends" concept for the betterment of the widescreen G6 and Google leaving its Project Ara concept forever frozen in the Nexus era that preceded its Pixel phone, Lenovo's Motorola division has become the standard-bearer for the idea of a modular smartphone. The magnetic back of the Moto Z played host to a trio of backs at launch -- a Qi-enabled battery extension from Incipio, an enhanced speaker bearing the JBL brand (now part of Samsung-owned Harman), and a pico projector. These were later joined by a long-zoom camera module from Hasselblad.

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Image: Liangchen Chen

Perhaps Lenovo faced challenges getting more big accessory brands to sign on beyond that. Regardless, it opened the floodgates to a broader creative hardware development community by partnering with Verizon and Indiegogo for a "Transform the Smartphone" challenge last year. About 50 ideas were submitted. The leaders in attracting funding have been:

  • Keyboard Mod (approximately $115,000), a QWERTY keyboard that attaches to the bottom of the Z and allows the phone to be typed on while resting at a view-friendly angle
  • Drop (approximately $23,000), a LoRa (low power, long-range) radio designed for tracking items such as pets, kids and valuables within a one to five-mile radius of the phone when in urban areas
  • Edge Mod (approximately $45,000) a module that adds edge lighting to the sides of the Moto Z, optionally with an extended battery or wireless charging

Keyboard Mod has been the last of the three to meet its ($100,000) goal. The campaign recently shared that it has been accepted into a Motorola Accelerator program that should help with delivery of its product. On the other hand, many of the projects have collected less than $10, with a number of them attracting not even a single backer. These have included mods that would add a game pad, broadcast television, and the cheekily (nosily?) named Mot'Olfactory, which would bring "an intelligent electronic nose" to the device.

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With failed attempts at smartphone modularity, I've been hesitant to spend money on accessories. But Motorola Mobility recently revealed that we can count on Moto Mods for at least three years.

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The full value of Moto Mods to Motorola users won't be known until we see how things play out across the next three years. Lenovo deserves kudos for creating the best modular phone architecture -- one supporting the broadest array and most useful modules -- to date. And tapping into the creativity and risk of the crowdfunding hardware community demonstrates an ardent effort to expand the Moto Mod line and offer more choice to Moto Z owners.

As with all Indiegogo campaigns, the transparency of the fundraising offers insight into what early adopters -- and a targeted subset of them at play here -- are willing to support with actual dollars. If each of the most funded Mods come to light, that would expand the number of commercial options from four to seven. It would also bring some lower priced Mods into the mix.

However, the chicken-and-egg success proposition of the architecture depends on many factors, including how well the base phones sell. It's hard to see the tail of the mods wagging the dog of the smartphone, which is of course the payoff for Lenovo. But for those who have taken the Moto Z plunge, it must be encouraging to see that Lenovo is taking measures to expand the choice of modules to fulfill the device's promise.

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