Project Ara: a modular smartphone
In 2008 an Israeli company called Modu announced they would be launching a phone with the same name as the company. The phone at the time didn’t have the appearance of anything special, however there was something quite unique about it that made Google acquire some of Modu’s patents. The phone had a jacket that could be swapped by the user for another one, but with the Modu this wasn’t purely cosmetic. Swapping the jacket could allow for the addition of actual phone functionality, for instance adding a camera.
In 2013 Dutch designer Dave Hakkens announced that he would be working with companies to try and develop a fully modular smartphone under the name Phonebloks. The idea behind the modular smartphone platform is that it would include a structural frame that holds smartphone modules of the owner’s choice. These modules could be a CPU, camera or an extra battery. It would allow users to upgrade individual modules, for instance when there is a malfunction, as innovations emerge, providing longer lifetime cycles for the smartphone, and potentially reducing electronic waste. At the same time Motorola announced project Ara, the company’s project to develop a modular smartphone, and that it would work together with Hakkens in developing it. Motorola at that time had already been acquired by Google.
One of the interesting things about this project is that, from the get-go, the intention was to make this an “open source hardware” platform. Open source hardware means that the technical information, schematics, source codes, integrated circuit layout data and the software that runs the hardware are made publicly available. Third party developers can then use this information to design their own modules for the platform. The project stayed with Google after it sold Motorola to Lenovo and in 2014 Google is organizing multiple developers conferences for which over 3300 developers have subscribed.
Why would Google give away their technical know-how, when it could manufacture and sell the platform and its modules herself? I think that it is Google’s strategy to create a smartphone platform that has the largest adoption rate possible, Google itself has stated that its goal with the Ara project is to create a smartphone that could be used by “six billion people”. If Google would choose to make its own modules, the amount of individual modules that would be available on the platform would be limited, which means the value of the platform would be limited. The value of the platform increases by having third parties developing and manufacturing modules for it. Google could still require developers to sell their products through their channels, which would generate revenue, but I don’t think this is Google’s ultimate goal. What I think is Google’s ultimate goal with this platform is to enlarge the adoption rate of its Android platform. In the end, Google generates revenue by selling advertisements and information, and one of the ways it is able to do so is through its Android platform. If this platform is more widely spread, Google is able to sell more advertisements, and gather and sell more data gathered from this platform.
The first model of the modular phone is set to release in Q1 2015, for an estimated $50