Android has been revolutionizing the field of mobile computing in the past few years, and if the trend is any indication, it is a safe bet to assume the best of this platform is yet to come. Google is the not the first company to play with open platforms, but it’s definitely one of the major players. In spite of the proprietary Google components, which make the Android OS so popular, Android can still be considered as an open platform by today’s standards, and thus what it has been able to achieve in terms of innovation, scale, and reach, still falls within the set of infinite possibilities that a successful open platform can accomplish.

Motorola, before acquisition by Lenovo, wanted to cast the same spell for hardware what Android platform has done for software – create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem. Motorola wanted to build an open platform for hardware with a desire to achieve the same level of success Android has with software. This open platform, named Project Ara, was Motorola’s attempt, may be driven by Google’s vision, to shake the very basic fundamentals of the smartphone market. Thankfully, the ambitious project didn’t reach its premature end when Lenovo bought Motorola, as the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) Group, the team behind futuristic ideas like Project Ara, moved to Google to continue working on their moonshot projects. Irrelevant of the feasibility or the probability of success, from the customer point of view, it’s a very compelling narrative to know that Google is seriously working on a project to destroy your current smartphone and help you build one according to your own whims and fancies.

The Crazy Idea

Prior to Motorola announcing the project, there was a lot of buzz generated in the internet circles by a similar concept named PhoneBloks. Just when PhoneBloks was trying to gather following, Motorola announced Project Ara and partnered with PhoneBloks to tap into the following. The basic premise behind PhoneBloks and Project Ara is both similar and simple i.e., to make a fully customizable smartphone. In Motorola’s own words,

“The design for Project Ara consists of what we call an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything, from a new application processor to a new display or keyboard, an extra battery, a pulse oximeter or something not yet thought of!”

Simply, the idea is to build a smartphone where every part of the phone can be replaced with a better, larger, or altogether a different part to suit ones individual needs, without actually replacing the entire phone. The idea is the assembled PC equivalent for smartphones, where a change or increase in functionality and performance can be attained by replacing and removing individual components instead of the entire system.

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Benefits Galore

The most immediate and perhaps the most striking advantage of a modular smartphone is the promise of full-fledged customization to suit individual needs and preferences. Under this approach, a customer with passion for photography can pick a better and higher resolution camera module from a manufacturer of choice, provided the manufacturer is part of the ecosystem. Similarly, a person with passion for music can go for better speaker modules; a frequent traveler in need of longer battery life can go high capacity battery modules; patients can go for yet unknown health modules and so on. Not just add, but customers can even remove unwanted functionality to lower the phone cost. Yes, all of this and more is possible if Google succeeds in its attempt to build an open hardware platform with a vibrant third-party hardware developer ecosystem.

This approach of unbundling smartphone components into customer swappable modules also make the phones last longer. In fact, Google expects an Ara phone to last 5-6 years, which is at least 3 times the life span of current day smartphones. This is possible as customers can simply swap outdated or defective modules with the latest offerings, instead of replacing the entire phone. This results in savings for the customer, and reduces the per capita e-waste as well.

A Dream for Many Companies and Nightmare for Some

On the business side of things, an open hard platform like Project Ara can have drastically far reaching consequences. It reduces barriers to entry for third party developers, and opens up a whole new world of opportunities in the development of smartphone industry.

If the modular concept turns out to be successful, many third party developers, depending on their expertise, can just create modules to deliver their innovation instead of creating entire smartphones. What this simply translates to is that, companies like Garmin who made navigation-centric smartphones to capitalize on their expertise, need not develop entire smartphones where they usually fail, but instead just develop GPS modules whey probably succeed. Such an open platform rewards and reinforces developers and companies to just focus on their expertise where their USP lies, instead of trying to be the jack of all trades like the current day smartphone manufacturers.

This platform also provides an invaluable opportunity to regain relevance for many companies, whose products like cameras, music players etc have lost their business to the onslaught of smartphones replacing them. The definite outcome of all these cases is the increased pace and varied nature of innovation, as an open platform distributes the responsibility and opportunity of creating something ‘cool’ to a large set of third party developers. Of course, such a platform liberates the smartphone industry from the strangleholds of the few cash-rich, mediocre smartphone companies by creating a more level field for various third party developers, and thereby enabling a larger set to have a slice of the lucrative smartphone profits.

Challenges Countless

For all the exciting possibilities of Ara, there are various things which may not go in favour of the ambitious plan – things which may not comply with the desired scale and nature of success aspired. One of them is the unstated assumption on part of Project Ara to believe that future smartphones continue to be rectangular slabs. With companies pouring in piles of cash into R&D for developing flexible smartphones that can bend and even fold, it’s difficult to fathom how relevant the current form factors can be once the wave of flexible smartphones hits the market. Even if the argument of over reliance on current form factor is discounted, it’s hard to deny that Ara still faces formidable challenges pertaining to smartphone ergonomics and aesthetics. How best a module developed by the third party developer looks, feels and fits into endo is still a puzzling thought. When factors like third party developers can come from any corner of the world, with or without any prior experience, and probably with limited interaction with the endo manufacturer, ensuring acceptable ergonomics and aesthetics appear to be a more daunting task than ever.

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To Google’s credit, in the last few weeks, ATAP did announce vital details pertaining to the aesthetics, size, and shape of the proposed Ara phone. For starters, the team is working on three endoskeletons of different sizes – mini (iPhone-ish), medium (standard Android-ish), and large (phablet-esque). The modules are of standard 1×1, 1×2, and 2×2 sizes which are swappable across all the three endoskeleton sizes. The entire phone with modules is targeted to be less than 10 mm which may not be a very tough sell or deal breaking considering the potential on offer. To make the look and feel of the Ara phone more personalized, ATAP is working on a Moto Maker like Ara Configurator, where users will be able to choose colors for each of the modules, upload images to create a personalized design, or even create customized 3D-printed textures to cover the modules. Not just that, the textures are placed like caps on the modules, and are designed to be easily replaceable without changing the whole module. As far as personalization goes, Ara, when available, will be light years ahead of the current generation smartphones.

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While Google is busy marketing the benefits of a modular phone, the rest of the smartphone companies and component suppliers are moving exactly in the opposite direction with unibody designs and integrated solutions. A fitting example in this regard is the latest range of Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile processors which pack GPU, co-processors, cellular modems etc all into one integrated chip. This kind of integration is widely sought by the manufacturers to streamline their operations. This trend will surely hamper the ‘pick and choose’ strategy marketed by Ara to some degree, as few features in smartphones are best delivered as integrated solutions in order to make both business and economic sense. Granted, these integrated solutions present a problem of surplus, and thus may be justified to ignore – a viewpoint which sounds even more rational when the expected innovation from modular phones goes beyond just reshuffling existing features.

The biggest challenge for Project Ara, however, lies in the software optimization – a daunting challenge for Google to take up. While the idea of numerous third party developers creating modules sound interesting, a modular phone will be exciting for the customers to use only if Android is optimized to seamlessly integrate and work with countless third party modules. If module makers, and particularly Google on the software front, succeed to create an experience which is both intuitive and effortless, then Ara can truly gain traction beyond the tech nerds’ community. Until Google takes promising steps in that direction, it is both expected and justified to be skeptical about the performance and intuitiveness of the modular smartphones to be ever on par with other phones. For now at least, Android doesn’t support swappable hardware modules, and the team is planning to make it compatible later this year by creating a forked version of the OS. All this means is that it is still a long way before Ara software components make their way it into the main Android distribution.

Along with all these challenges, Google also still needs to figure out approvals from regulatory agencies like FCC across the world if it is really serious about making it into a phone for the world.

So Far So Good

While the project sounds exciting, it’s true that the puzzle is missing many parts. In spite of all this uncertainty, there is at least certainty that Google is serious about the project. This is evident from the fact that ATAP recently ventured into a multi-year exclusive partnership with 3D Systems, a company with expertise in 3D printing technologies, to create a high speed multi-material 3D printing platform for Project Ara. It is worth noting here that advancements in 3D printing can directly influence the success of Project Ara by facilitating faster prototyping and production of modules.

Also, to provide more information and direction to those interested in the project, Google announced a series of Ara Developers’ Conferences throughout 2014, first of which will was held on April 15 and 16. Apart from providing a Module Developers Kit (MDK) to the developers to get started on creating modules, Google explained the next generation technologies in developing Ara like the UniPro protocol for high speed interface between modules, and electro permanent magnets to hold the modules intact. To entice the best brains to invest their energy into creating modules, Google even announced a $100k module development contest for innovative ideas. Currently, ATAP is aiming to offer functional prototypes to developers in few weeks, and targeting commercial launch for early adopters in Q1 next year. To some extent, magnitude and pace of these efforts does convey that Google is indeed hard at work to make this intriguing concept into a reality.

Charge Less But Sell More

Google states Project Ara is designed exclusively for the 6 billion people. Apart from driving innovation, Google believes Ara can make smartphones way more affordable. If nothing else, the targeted price points seem to suggest Google is indeed targeting the 5 billion people who don’t own smartphones. Paul Eremenko, project head for Ara, hinted that the team is currently aiming to offer Endos around $15 price point along with a $50 modular smartphone consisting of an Endo and bare bone modules including a display, battery, processor and a WiFi module. While the actual prices may vary depending on the retail strategy, these are still extremely compelling price points which can trigger impulse buying and propel the developers’ interest. However, it will be interesting to watch how aggressively Google will pursue Project Ara considering the Google–Android OEMs nuanced relationship, and the survival threatening impact a successful modular smartphone at throw away prices will have on these manufacturers.

Also, for Ara to reach 6 billion people, Google needs to invent ways to make configuring smartphones less than daunting for the non-geek population who forms the vast majority. For many first time smartphone buyers or feature phone users, buying and servicing a phone under the current manufacturing and delivery model from one of the major OEMs is infinitely easier than configuring their own phones. How Google tackles this paradox of choice determines the large scale adoption of the modular smartphones to a great extent. For now, all that Google announced are ambitious plans ranging from online stores to physical kiosks for buying modules.

So, Can Google Destroy Your Phone?

The idea has immense potential, and if Google is able to pull it off, this could truly present plethora of opportunities for innovation beyond comprehension at this point of time. Apart from creating an entirely new ecosystem potentially worth billions, this modular concept can have ramifications fundamentally shaking the nature of the smartphone industry. So far, Google has been successful in keeping the hopes high. Adding to the momentum generated by Google, Xiaomi and ZTE announced similar plans to build modular smartphone named Magic Cube and Eco-Mobius respectively. All these developments definitely increase the possibility of modular smartphones coming to the market very soon.

So, will Google succeed in its ambitious attempt to create an open hardware platform for smartphones? May be. Will Project Ara set the trend for other manufacturers to make fully customizable smartphones? May be. Will the current model of smartphone manufacturing cease to exist, and customizable smartphones become the only norm in the future? Definitely not. In spite of all the awesomeness associated with the idea, it is both tough to argue and difficult to believe that open customizable smartphones can demolish the current smartphone manufacturing and delivery model. It is safe to assume that both hardware platforms can co-exist by targeting different and occasionally over lapping market segments, just like the assembled and pre-configured desktops. One platform promises to offer unparalleled customization and feature set, while the other platform is relying on sophistication and synergy that is more than the sum of its parts. Both these approaches can definitely co-exist in the market, even if not in the same proportion. With Project Ara, Google has very little to lose, but an industry to gain. Even if Google fails to create the promised platform, remember, it’s just one of the many moon shots by Google.


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Guest Contributor

Naresh Nekkanti is a writer by passion, not profession. He is mad about movies, passionate about politics, and talkative about technology. A firm believer in Science and Technology as solution to our problems. He considers WiFi a basic need and slow broadband speeds inhuman.