Doubling Down on Doubt

Is Project Ara Coming Together?

Modular_phone_lIn June 2014, we stated our doubts about Google’s ambitious modular phone concept, Project Ara (see Daily Insight: Five Easy Pieces). The goal of an innovative environment for third-party hardware that snaps together to create low-cost, highly customised handsets looks great on paper. However, modular phones face a significant handicap given the growing number of sleek, quality budget smartphones on the market.

Google recently held a developer conference for Project Ara in Mountain View, California, and another in Singapore with more than 3,300 attendees. The company plans to pilot the device in “mobile first” Puerto Rico later this quarter. Units will be sold from repurposed food trucks, a retail approach used by some smartphone brands and operators in developing markets.

Google apparently remains dedicated to the group behind Project Ara, but there continue to be more doubts than confirmations about the product. It’s encouraging that a hands-on trial will begin soon.

Project Ara product managers estimate the overhead of modularity to be about 25%, meaning devices would be heavier, thicker and require more power than conventionally mass-produced smartphones. It’s the price to pay for flexibility.

Google isn’t alone in proposing a smartphone form change. Other smartphone manufacturers have disclosed modular handset concepts over the years, but only a few have moved forward as far as Google.

At CES 2015, Blocks showcased on Intel’s booth. It’s the Project Ara of wearables — a modular watch concept allowing users to snap together their perfect device. Proposed components include screens, sensors, batteries, flashlights and a SIM card slot. The team has already demonstrated a working prototype, with a crowd-funding campaign scheduled for early 2015 to allow launch toward the end of the year.

Finnish company Circular Devices is developing the Android PuzzlePhone device, which enables the reuse of parts like screens and processors. It has the admirable goal of creating a sustainable environment for handset components, but faces the same challenges of scale and mass efficiencies.

It’s worth noting, despite our doubts, that three makes a trend: modularity is a topic worth following. Many phones already offer a reasonable degree of customisation with upgradeable memory cards, SIM cards, batteries, covers and external speakers, meaning the concept won’t be entirely foreign to consumers. Google’s project has been in the works for about half a decade — it’s a long-term venture that could pay dividends to the industry in ways not intended or yet imagined.