Modu: Cool but flawed

I was pretty down on Modu, which is essentially a module-based GSM system that consists of a tiny handset — no bigger than a business card and about a quarter-inch thick — and a bunch of “mates” or “jackets” that wrap around the phone to do different things. Now that I’ve seen it up close and talked to the founder, I’m a bit more interested yet still reluctant to state that this will be an absolute success.

The idea is this: Modu makes the modules and sells an SDK to manufacturers like Bosch and Magellan, two actual partners. The partners write a few GSM hooks into their firmware and to make calls, pick up SMSes, and get data. You buy a module and two jackets for about 200 euro in shops and then buy additional jackets — media players, GPS devices, vibrators, etc. — as needed.

My concern is this: the market is ruled by handset manufacturers who will not cede territory to a wee start-up. The buy-in for the consumer is fairly large. I have to invest in the phone and the jackets and hope that the company doesn’t go belly-up in the next few years and that partners keep releasing jackets. As a manufacturer, however, I have the chance to make and sell all my same products but easily, and without FCC approval, add the powers of a cellphone to my gear. I could add Modu compatibility to almost anything, provided I follow the recommendations and get certified by Modu. My time to market is about four months rather than two years.

They expect product to ship early next year and they already have carriers in Italy, Russia, and Israel interested in the product. Founder Dov Moran knows the industry — he was one of the grandpaters of the thumb drive world — and he has a good team. I only fear that skittish consumers will forgo buying a tiny phone with no track record and a bunch of CE stuff that only works with that phone. Then, add in the possibility of doing this all over Bluetooth or near-field communications, without a physical module, and you’ve got some heavy competition. I accept the the concept but I worry that this won’t get far past this initial stage. Only time will tell.

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