Google’s Project Ara: Modular Smartphone Design


One of the more exciting projects that Google is currently working on is Project Ara, which is all about modular smartphone design. The idea behind Project Ara is that consumers can pick and choose the underlying components to their smartphone in a far more flexible way than is currently possible using conventional manufacturers. Ara is a very exciting project for a few reasons but first I'm going to write about what it is.

As I've written, Project Ara is about a modular smartphone design. This means that customers will be able to pick and choose the underlying components of a smartphone, a little bit like using Lego blocks to build your device. We'll be able to at least pick the processor, memory, screen, camera and battery modules and these components will be interchangeable. It means that we'll be able to piece together a device with hardware in a unique, and personal, combination. Google will provide the architecture and framework. Manufacturers will need to stick to the guidelines to ensure compatibility, but this means the components will be interchangeable.

Okay, so why is this a good thing? Well it means that we'll be able to tailor a device to our own personal preferences and for those hardware features that we don't want, we won't need to include them in the design. For example, if I were designing a ‘phone for work, I may need a mid-range processor, I won't need a camera but I may want a large screen and battery. Conversely, if I were designing a ‘phone for playing games by streaming them to my television, I might want a high end processor and battery, but be happy with a small, low resolution display and a mid-range camera.

It also means I won't need to wait for the usual manufacturer product cycle before upgrading my device. Most manufacturers currently release new ‘phones every year and it means if I like my current handset, but fancy a better camera, screen, processor or whatever, I have to wait for the next flagship handset to be released if I'm to stick with the same manufacturer. Project Ara means I can upgrade any component at any time I want to and it also means the component manufacturers won't be condemned to only releasing new products a few months before the new flagship handsets are released.

Project Ara will create an exciting primary market, that is, where I can buy new components. But it will also indirectly create a secondary market, where I can buy and sell used components. Being able to sell on my old processor module is the ultimate form of recycling. And if Project Ara is extended to tablets, it means that I might want to switch components between my smartphone and my tablet. Or perhaps if I have upgraded the camera module on my smartphone, I can use the outgoing module for my tablet. I can see many parallels between a new Android Project Ara era and the IBM PC clone market: I can configure and reconfigure my desktop computer as much as I want or need to. If a component fails, it is relatively easy to replace. If a component fails inside my HTC One, it is far harder to repair. It will drive innovation in the market, too; manufacturers will want a means of differentiating their product from their competitors.

All up, yes I am excited about Project Ara. Current Ara designs look chunky and inelegant, but these are sure to be refined. I love the idea of being able to pick and choose the right components for me and of being able to swap in and out replacement bits if I feel I want an upgrade.

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