Some assembly required.
According to Google’s estimates, the first build-it-yourself modular smartphone, currently known as Project Ara, will be hitting shelves in January 2015. That’s just two months until the smartphone industry is changed forever.
Project Ara is part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. The group was one of the few pieces Google chose to retain from Motorola Mobility when it sold the rest of the company to Lenovo. A large part of Google’s decision to keep the group was its ambitious plan to create an open-source smartphone hardware platform: Project Ara.
All Ara smartphones will begin life as a piece of base hardware, currently known as an ‘Endo’ (short for endoskeleton), which will be available in three sizes: mini, medium and large. Features like a processor, camera, battery, wireless radio, speakers, fingerprint scanner, or really anything partners can come up with, will then be added to the Endo as individual plug-and-play modules, with larger Endos fitting more modules. The hot-swappable modules will give users the power to create a phone that works exactly how they want. Power users could add a second battery module, while photographers could opt for a better camera module. Modules will be built by Google, as well as third-party developers using Google’s Module Developers Kit. Ara, naturally, will run on Android.
When Ara was first announced (back when it was still a Motorola project), group lead, Paul Eremenko, envisioned Ara doing for hardware what Android has done for software: “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.” If Ara succeeds, it will give consumers the power to decide not just what their phone does, but how it looks, what it’s made of, how much it costs, and when, if ever, they want to replace it – theoretically, you could just keep upgrading new modules when required. But will it succeed? Much of Apple’s continued success in the smartphone market can be attributed to how aesthetically pleasing its designs are. The new iPhones are thin and light, with no wasted internal space.
But a modular phone design means using up precious space for connections between the pieces, which makes the phone bulkier. It prevents closer integration between various hardware components and between hardware and software. As a result, an Ara smartphone will never look and feel as sleek or light as the equivalent high-end premade device.
Ara is also unlikely to see much success in the burgeoning budget smartphone market. The sum parts of individual modules for your Ara smartphone is likely to be higher than a similar-specced entrylevel smartphone. You’re paying extra for the option to choose and customize your device. But with players like Xiaomi and now Google’s own Android One offering more and more features at lower prices, Ara will be unable to compete at this level. Customization isn’t a high priority when you’re just looking for the best bang for your buck.
Ara’s best bet is the mid-range category - the area of the market with the most players. While it offers a unique proposition, Ara is banking on consumers actually wanting to customize their device. But do they? How many consumers feel like they actually need a second battery module? And if you’re a keen photographer, there are already smartphones with camera modules aimed at photographers out there. The problem with Ara is that it offers choice, but the smartphone market is full of choice – there are hundreds of different smartphones out there. If you want it, you don’t need to build it, someone else has already built it for you.
"Ara’s best bet is the mid-range category - the area of the market with the most players. While it offers a unique proposition, Ara is banking on consumers actually wanting to customize their device.”