For enthusiasts of the modular phone concept, Tuesday, the 2nd of September last year would go down as a black Friday indeed. That was the day Google finally announced the end to the development of Project Ara, the modular smartphone been made by Google.
Though Google hinted it would license out the technology to interested 3rd party firms, the world knew that was the end the modular phone. At least in the foreseeable future. The fact is, Google was the only company with the resources and interest to turn that concept into reality.
So what is a modular phone and why was it so important?
The Modular phone concept
The basic idea of a modular phone rests on these two props,
- Cheaper longer lasting phones and
- The need to have greener, environmentally friendly smartphones
Dave Hakkens, a Dutch designer, first announced the concept in 2013. The modular concept completely redesigned the smartphone we use today.
Instead of a single block of metal or plastic (depending on manufacturers) a modular phone is made of several pieces (known as modules) attached to a central frame. These pieces are easily detached and re-attached. Just think of how kids make stuff with Lego bricks.
In essence, one can buy a $100 smartphone with low specs and bit by bit, change the modules to make the smartphone work like a top-end smartphone. For example, you can change the memory module to a higher memory. Or you can change the camera of the phone to high-quality camera by simply changing the lens. Almost everything that makes up a smartphone is detachable and can be changed.
Environmentalist lauded the idea. A modular phone could reduce the world’s carbon footprint as far as smartphones are concerned since we wouldn’t have to change phones as often as we do now. Just change a module if you want a higher spec phone.
Modular phone concept in practice
There was a lot of optimism over the modular phone. After so many disappointments, Google finally unveiled a working version of a modular phone in May last year at Google’s annual developers’’ conference known as Google I/O. Though there were a few modifications to the initial design, what the world saw was a modular phone that worked.
As the first modular phone, the hope was that it would only get better in the future. And to heighten optimism, Google planned to send units of the phone to developers towards the end of 2016 to aid them in developing compliant modules for customers.
And the first batches of complete modular phones were to be sold in the first quarter of this year.
But then came that announcement in September killing the hopes of billions of people around the world.
Killing Project Ara
Perhaps, the world would never know the real reason for halting the development of Project Ara Modular phone. At least Google is not saying. But informed guesses cannot be far from the truth. Some of the reasons for halting the project could be any or a combination of these:
1. The role of Alphabet
Before Google changed its name to Alphabet, projects like Ara were something Google did as an investment in the future. Results were not guaranteed. Failure was an option in so many of these ambitious projects
The creation of Alphabet changed the corporate outlook at Google. Alphabet was created as a parent body to oversee all of Google’s operations. Google now became a unit under Alphabet that was fashioned as a global corporation with an eye for profits beholden to shareholders.
So projects like Ara whose short and long term future profitability were shrouded in uncertainties had to stop. Google simply could not justify further investments on Project Ara to the new Alphabet board.
2. Finding enough developers was proving difficult
The key to making the modular concept a success was convincing phone parts developers to buy into the idea of making modules for the phones.
The key issue was this: can Google assure developers that the investments in making modules would be worthwhile in terms of ROIs? It is one thing to support a great idea, but it’s another to go bankrupt while pursuing that dream. Businesses never operate that way.
Besides, Google can pursue that dream without filing for bankruptcy because of their huge cash reserves. But smaller phone parts makers cannot afford to do that. They depend on immediate purchases from customers to stay in business.
3.The role of the new Google Pixel smartphone
Immediately it became apparent that Google was going into the high-end niche of the smartphone business, it was clear that something had to give.
Modular phones in themselves work against the interest of regular phones. Project Ara was meant to give consumers of smartphone control on how and when they chose to spend money on new phones.
A successful Ara smartphone would have meant lower sales figures for most phone manufacturers. Nobody would be interested in wasting money getting a new phone when you can get a vastly superior phone by changing a few components of your old modular phone.
So in the interest of the Pixel smartphone, Ara had to go. No corporate organization with even a tiny bit of sense would promote or invest in a product that would hamper the success of a different product produced by the same company. Especially if said new product, Pixel, is what the company is hoping would be used to project and protect its main brand in the future.
Make no mistake about it. Google is using the Pixel as a flagship to promote the Android operating systems of the future. And of course, to make tons of money while doing it. Already, there are rumors of the Pixel 2, which clearly indicates Google is joining the ‘new-flagship-smartphone-per-year’ race with the likes of Samsung and Apple.
In this kind of environment, one doesn’t need the distractions of what is essentially a charity project masked as a visionary concept.
What next for Modular Smartphones
With the end of the Project Ara, the future of complete modular phones would be hard to predict for certain. The LG G5 smartphone launched last year felt like the beginnings of good things for modular phones.
However, it was a limited modular phone as only the camera could be enhanced. The phone came with a lot of interest chiefly based on the modular nature of the phone.
But the cold, practical marketplace has dampened enthusiasm. Sales were not as expected. So it is unlikely LG would continue developing the modular phone by introducing more replaceable parts.
The situation at this point is that of waiting and hoping that something changes to bring back modular phones. That something would have to be a combination of deep pockets, passion and not giving two cents about making profits in the short run.