MOD­U­LAR SMAR­PHONES

Some assem­bly re­quired.

HWM (Singapore) - - THINK - by JamesLu

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.”

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