Late last week the tech world got a bit excited about Project Ara, Google’s latest venture into the world of ‘modular smartphones’, which could conceivably flip the industry on its head by allowing consumers to choose the components and modules that go into their phones.
Inspired by Lego, you start with the shell of the phone then choose the processor, memory, battery, camera, and so on to create the smartphone that’s perfect for your needs.
Theoretically the project could mean the end of phone upgrades as we know them, in the sense that with Ara you upgrade the component parts rather than the whole device. For example when a better camera, screen or processor comes along you whip out your old one and plug in the new one — with everything held in place by clever magnets.
A very basic initial version of the device will be available this month but according to PC Advisor it won’t be until the second and third generations later this year and into 2016 when there will be features like 4G LTE (or even 3G) and cameras that you’d actually want to take pictures with.
Apparently a trial of the third generation ‘Spiral 3’ is due to commence in Puerto Rico later this year where Google will sell the modules from mobile trucks, which will allow customers to design, print and assemble their handset from scratch in under five minutes. For customers who don’t want to choose every feature themselves, Google will offer a ‘bento box’ option with pre-selected components that users assemble at the point of sale. And for those who can’t be bothered with the assembly process, a ‘ready-to-go’ Ara with all the modules plugged in will be on sale. The pre-built phones will be based on themes like hiking, travel or photography.
Not quite as easy as Lego
Project Ara’s innovative approach to handset design will definitely not be without its challenges.
A modular approach will almost certainly make handsets bigger and heavier than current smartphones, and connectivity between the modules will be difficult.
The user experience of these phones will also rely on consumers making sensible choices about the modules they choose. For example a low-end processor and a high-end camera will not work in perfect harmony.
Then there is the software. Currently, a smartphone’s software is optimised to the hardware on which it runs. But when you have potentially hundreds of different component combinations, that has got to make things much more complex.
That said, I’m sure these are all engineering challenges that will be overcome.
The return of differentiation
With more than 5 billion people in the world without a smartphone, Google seems to have once again found a potentially massively lucrative cash cow and drive an exciting developer ecosystem, which could see some semblance of differentiation return to the smartphone market.
Whilst it may be a little while before we see Project Ara giving the iPhone a run for its money in this country, modular phones will become extremely popular in such countries as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. For people who can’t afford to buy a smartphone every year, modular phones will truly be a money-saving solution.
Image via Wikimedia.