Will Project Ara work? The good and bad of Google’s plan to turn phones into Legos

The idea of a smartphone that you build yourself using individual modules that slot together like Lego, each housing a specific feature or function, is definitely appealing, but no matter how much we think about it, Project Ara seems like a good idea on paper that may never work. The reality could easily be an expensive mess that’s never going to capture the public imagination. There are a lot of good reasons why we’d want do-it-yourself phones, but also a lot of reasons why they’re a horrible idea. Below is the good and the bad of Google’s Project Ara.

Why Project Ara sounds awesome

Think about owning a phone you build from the ground up. You’d start by choosing from three skeleton sizes and slot in the modules (features) you want on your Android phone. The modules are held together by extremely strong magnets that can be turned on and off. Choose the processor, the battery, the memory, the camera, and potentially a host of other options from a fingerprint scanner to a heart rate monitor. Much depends on what developers build, and whether manufacturers can be attracted to develop for Ara. Imagine a camera module built by Canon, or a speaker module from Bose. If enough companies get onboard, there could be an amazing ecosystem of phone parts to choose from

The benefits of a modular, build-it-yourself phone:

  • Phones could be $50 up front: You could start with a bare bones phone with a crappy, low-resolution screen and weak processor, then slowly upgrade it as you get the money.
  • You only buy the features that you want: You can customize your experience and avoid paying for functions that don’t interest you.
  • Your phone could last indefinitely: Instead of discarding your device and buying a new one, you could just upgrade and swap components as and when you need to.
  • Repairs are easier and cheaper. You only need to swap individual modules when they fail or break, there’s no need to send your phone off for repair.
  • You could have two versions of your phone. You could re-use the same modules in a small frame for traveling light, or slot them into a larger frame on a day you have your bag with you.

But there are also downsides

Before we get too excited, let’s consider the obstacles that Ara will have to overcome.

Problems with a modular, build-it-yourself phone:

  • It will be bigger and heavier than a standard phone: Individual modules with connectors are inevitably going to add up to extra bulk.
  • It will be more expensive: If a phone manufacturer is offering the same specification smartphone in a package, it will inevitably be cheaper than the Ara equivalent. The only difference is that you can buy your Ara one piece at a time.
  • The connectors are bound to cause problems: The magnets that hold the modules together will reportedly be strong enough to ensure that it doesn’t come apart in your hand or break into pieces when dropped, but what happens when a connector is damaged or dirty?
  • Certain combinations won’t work: If you opt for cutting edge modules for features like the camera, then it’s not going to work properly if you stick in a slow processor or a small battery. There’s no way every possible type of component can be interchangeable with every other one, so there will have to be a complex set of exceptions.
  • It won’t be optimized: Phone manufacturers like Samsung stick their hardware together with their software and optimize the package to run smoothly (at least most of the time they do). How will an Ara phone compete with a purpose-built device? It will inevitably run slower unless it can smartly detect your processor and setup.
  • How many combinations can there really be? The size and shape is obviously fixed by the frame, but how many different permutations can you have? Every possible one must be tested to ensure that there’s no impact on features and functions. There are bound to be some dud combinations that kill antenna reception or create other issues. Ara could be a nightmare to test.

For Ara to reach the level where it’s possible for frames and modules to be mass manufactured cheaply it will need to be extremely popular. But for it to get extremely popular it will need a good choice of modules. There’s a chicken and egg problem to overcome and it requires early adopters to pay a premium and help work out the bugs. That’s not unusual in tech, so it could happen, but it really banks on a lot of people being passionate about modular phones.

The phone equivalent of building a PC tower?

Building your own stuff is great, but few people do it. Some people will happily spend a lot of money to buy kits for building cars, or order parts and put together their own computers. Think back to the days of the build-it-yourself kit for the Altair 8800 and the Home Brew Computer club that inspired Steve Wozniak to design the Apple I. Consider the growing maker movement in electronics today, crowd-funded through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There is no doubt that a passionate niche will be very interested in Project Ara and they could help drive it on to greater success, especially if they develop innovative modules for it.

However, the majority of people want a complete product that requires no extra input from them. They want something that just works out of the box. Even in its most consumer-friendly incarnation, it’s tough to imagine Ara being a major mainstream success.

Where did Project Ara come from?

The original concept dates back a few years, possibly to Google’s acquisition of Modu’s patents related to modular mobile phones in 2011. Last year Dutch designer Dave Hakkens revealed Phonebloks, which was originally conceived as a way of reducing electronic waste. Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP) began to work with Phonebloks and when Google agreed to sell Motorola Mobility to Lenovo it decided to keep the group.

The majority of people want a complete product that requires no extra input from them

Since then it has contracted NK Labs and 3D Systems to work on the project, it has released a Module Developer Kit, held the first developers conference, and announced a plan for a January launch for Ara, which seems very optimistic, although it the first device may be the be the “grayphone” costing just $50. This basic bit of kit will be intentionally dull to encourage customization.

A Google moonshot

Project Ara definitely falls into Google’s moon shots category. ATAP’s other projects include electronic tattoos and ingestible pills for security authentication. The Google X group has been working on driverless cars, Google Glass, and contact lenses for diabetics. As Larry Page put it, “If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.”

Comparatively Project Ara doesn’t sound that crazy at all. Who’s to say it’s not the moon shot that’s going to pay off?

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Deals

These Raspberry Pi 3 bundles will cover everyone, from coders to gamers

The Raspberry Pi 3 is a low-budget computing platform capable of doing just about anything. We rounded up a handful of the best Raspberry Pi 3 bundles to get you started on a variety of DIY projects.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Mobile

Google to end support for Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich

Anyone with an old phone that is still running Android 4.0 may want to look into upgrading their phone, as Google has announced that it will be ending support for this older version of Android.
Mobile

Amazon knocks $30 off its Paperwhite ebook reader in limited-time deal

Amazon is running a couple of limited-time deals for its Paperwhite ebook reader. One offers a $30 discount, while the other throws in a pair of headphones and a free, extended Audible trial.
Mobile

New Galaxy S10 leaks showcase display sizes, confirm headphone jack return

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Product Review

The iPad Pro is the best tablet ever. But don't sell your laptop just yet

Apple has unveiled a big redesign for the iPad Pro, slimming down the bezels, adding Face ID, and the ability to attach and charge the Apple Pencil. All of this comes at a high cost however, as the iPad Pro starts at $799.
Mobile

Android 9.0 updates to stretch into 2019 -- will your phone get a slice of Pie?

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.
Mobile

LG G7 owners experiencing dreaded bootloop will have to wait a few days for fix

If you’ve picked up LG’s flagship and it’s not behaving itself, then you might find a solution here. We’ve rounded up the most common LG G7 ThinQ problems and tracked down workarounds and possible fixes.
Mobile

A render video gives us a 360-degree look at the midrange Pixels

The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are considered to be two of the best Android smartphones, but it looks like Google could be prepping a midrange line. Say hello to the Pixel 3 Lite and Pixel 3 Lite XL.
Mobile

Honor to out-megapixel the competition with 48MP camera on upcoming View 20

After its phenomenal success with the View 10 in 2018, it looks like Honor is getting ready up the ante with its forthcoming Honor View 20. Here's everything we know about it so far.
Mobile

Xiaomi is preparing to set records with 48-megapixel phone camera

Bigger doesn't always mean better, but it certainly makes headlines. Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi is set to release a phone camera with a staggeringly large 48 megapixels on a single sensor.
Apple

Patent highlights Apple's sky-high ambitions for AirPower wireless charger

At its September event last year, Apple unveiled the AirPower -- its new wireless charging mat that will allow you to charge multiple devices at one time. It has not yet been released. Here's everything we know about the device so far.
Deals

Check out the best Green Monday deals for those last-minute gifts

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, but that doesn't mean you've missed your chance of finding a great deal. We're talking about Green Monday, of course, and it falls on December 10.