Modular smart device from Google’s Project Ara could be very close

28 February 2014

Google has set a conference date for its modular phone concept called Project Ara, a modular phone project which could revolutionise the way we buy phones in the future.

The developer gathering will take place on April 15 and 16 and be hosted online via live webstream and have interactive Q&A capacity. A small number of people will also be able to show up in person to the Computer History Museum in Silicone Valley, California.

Google’s first Ara ‘smartphone’ is aimed at being an ultra-cheap $50 device with WiFi-only capabilities. This smells very strongly of Google’s initiative to bring the internet and mobile devices to the developing world, where many people still don’t have access to either. Releasing such a new product in emerging markets first would also give Google the opportunity to perfect the consumer technology before moving in to the more expensive ends of the market.

What is a modular smartphone?

A modular phone is a simple idea. It is a device that houses all its various bits of hardware as separate, removable units that can be switched out for upgrades or even for hardware with different functionality.

This video by Dave Hakkens, an industrial-design student from the Netherlands, outlines it best.

Instead of having a single device with a single set of hardware all made or supplied by a single manufacturer, you could literally tailor a device to your wishes and buy parts from the companies who specialise in certain areas.

Hypothetically, you have a Samsung screen, Nokia camera, Sony battery and HTC speakers on the same device. It would also mean that you don’t end up paying for features you don’t need like Samsung’s GS5 heart-rate monitor which, while it will be very useful for a select few users, is likely to go unused by the majority of us.

Why is this important?

Currently the market follows the Apple model: single-unit, unchangeable devices that are supplied by the manufacturer and last around 2 years. Apple championed this standard with the iPhone in 2007 and every other phone maker has been scrambling to follow suit ever since.

Shortly after the first iPhone launched Google released the Android operating system. Android was meant to be the antithesis of iOS by being an open-source, free OS so that manufacturers could focus on hardware and provide some kind of competition to the Apple juggernaut. The idea was that a slew of different, original devices would emerge that covered all kinds of users and specialised in different areas.
It was only partially successful. It’s true that Android now boasts a far larger market share than iOS and that Samsung’s Galaxy S series of phones is slowly catching up to the iPhone in sales, but Android isn’t quite the open system Google had wished for.

A device where the user could tailor the hardware to themselves is about as far away from the Apple standard as you can get. It would require a total shift in the way the smartphone industry works and provide interesting feedback as to what hardware features users actually want.

It would also mess with carrier contracts. Most phones only last around 2 years, but in actuality it’s only ever one or two components that really let you down. Your processor might become too slow, or your hard drive might die. It’d be much cheaper and more efficient to simply replace those parts, rather than grab a whole new phone. Great for you and great for the environment.

Shake up the monotony

Each year there is a definite theme by which Android devices compete. 2011 was the year of camera megapixels and dual-core processors; 2012 was the year of screen size, quad-core processors, 4G LTE and 720p displays; in 2013 it was camera features, 1080p displays and screen size; 2014 is shaping up to be all about wearable tech accessories, water-resistance and battery-life. The problem with this approach is that it leads to a market of very similar devices. Users are told what they want and then supplied with it. Ultimately we’re all stuck with devices that do their best to cater to specific needs that aren’t necessarily ours. Customers pay for hardware and features they do not need, want or use because the alternative is a slow, low-quality phone.

If modular phones were to become the norm then manufacturers wouldn’t be able to dictate the terms on which the whole market competed. Instead, we would have specialists in certain aspects of hardware. We would also have little pressure in making our phone conform to a specific standard. Now that we’re all constantly plugged-in wouldn’t a device that perfectly suits our needs be better than one that does everything kind of well? I’m after a cracking camera and massive battery with just enough CPU power to get me to my next upgrade, how about you?



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