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?

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