Project Ara set for 2015 consumer trials

15 January 2015

Google has announced that consumer trials for its highly-intriguing, but equally-unlikely, Project Ara will begin this year in Puerto Rico. The aim is to produce a highly modular phone, where the user decides what hardware to swap in and out of a basic skeletal frame.

Ara is a story that doesn’t seem to die, but never quite comes to fruition. The initial announcement came in October 29 and early last year rumours began circulating that we were closer to an actual release than was predicted.

Now, almost one year later, the reality is that small trials will begin in an emerging market in the Puerto Rico thanks to a partnership with carriers OpenMobile and Claro. There is no indication of when or even if Project Ara will become globally available.

So what exactly is it?

Project Ara is a potential way to cut down on waste, tailor your phone to your needs and even reduce long-term expenses for the end user.

As each module fails or begins to show its age, you can upgrade, replace or remove them at your leisure. If your screen becomes broken, or the resolution is starting to look a little chunky, you can replace it with a new HD one. If you need a better camera you can do that, too, without replacing the entire unit. You could even buy an ultra-cheap, super-basic phone but with a top-end camera, if that’s all you’re interested in.

At launch, Google will reportedly have between 20-30 modules available across 10 categories. There will also be an Ara Manager app that helps to manage the modules and how they are used.

Google is currently planning a food-truck style roll out, where customers can turn up and give the technology a go to help build familiarity and trust.

Let Phonebloks do the talking

Phonebloks is another modular smartphone project that was put forward by Dave Hakkens, an industrial design student from the Netherlands, a month before Project Ara in September 2013. Since then Google has indicated it would be working with Phonebloks to help make Project Ara a reality.

Dave favours the idea of customisation in our devices, but focuses more on the need to cut down on electronic waste. His original video says it best.

Does Project Ara stand a chance?

It’s a lovely concept. A phone with modular parts could be hugely beneficial, but the reality is far more complex. For Ara to work, it will need support from the manufacturers against whose phones it will be competing.

That support will have to come early on if customer trust is to be built for customers. There’s no point buying a phone that is designed to be easily upgradeable, if when the time comes to upgrade it there are only a handful of options for parts, if any. 30 modules may sound like a lot, but if two years from now that number has barely grown or worse, dwindled, then it may not be enough to show-off what the technology is capable of.

Will we all be working with modular phones in the future? Probably not. It’s a brilliant solution in an ideal world, but in this one the integrated smartphone market has so much momentum that it’s unlikely a vastly different style of device from a company not renowned for its hardware would revolutionise the tech industry overnight.

The biggest chance for success is in emerging markets where smartphones are often prohibitively expensive. If Project Ara can provide hardware at an affordable-enough price, then we might see adoption begin elsewhere before slowly seeping in to the global market.



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