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



2 responses to “Project Ara: a modular smartphone”

  1. 351159sr says :

    Thanks for sharing this. I like the idea of Phonebloks, but I don’t think it will actually work in reality. Like you said, the idea is not new, but it isn’t there yet because it’s unrealistic. It will not be profitable for producers at all, as these companies make more money by selling completely new phones with high margins. So I seriously doubt that the big players in the phone industry will cooperate.
    Other than that, a good smartphone is so complicated that you can’t just split it in pieces and break it apart. It is the synergy between the components that make it a good smartphone. And if you remove that, a mediocre smartphone remains that is too large for its specifications and has a short battery life.
    It is impracticable: you need to have properly functioning software for all possible combinations of hardware, with interchangeable components that require different power consumptions. It will result in a large inefficient phone because the hardware is not matched well (space, energy, etc.).

    Assuming none of these issues will be there, than there’s still the problem that people actually like buying something completely new, if only because they like the change of design once in a while.
    Secondly, changing one component may sound nice in theory, but reality will be different. If you want a new camera on your phone and replace it, you would also need a new GPU/CPU. Which in turn requires a better battery, because the power consumption will be a lot higher. The high quality photos require a lot of space on your phone and so you need more memory as well. Oh, the HD photos don’t look so well on your non-HD screen.. You might want to replace that as well. 😉

  2. 419953mp says :

    I have to disagree with 351159SR. I do get your point about the components needing to work together properly for a phone to function properly. However, it was interesting to read that especially companies originating from developing markets like South-East Asia, South America and Eastern Europe have invested in these initiatives, this is not surprising at all. The developers would obviously have to deal with the compatibility of its components. However, I do believe it holds potential as a basic phone can become available to a large user base, especially with a US$50 starting price. Users can then add components as they either need better/more functionality and/or have the money to purchase this additional functionality. For the majority of the world, well-functioning flagship phones are not yet affordable, and therefore I believe this is an interesting idea to keep track off.

    Google is smart to support ideas like this, as it fits its Android business model very well like stated in this blog post. Android is not a system that is sold as a product for profit, the purpose is to have as many users adopt the OS as possible so Google enlarges its user base and earns back the investment through higher advertisement revenues. Especially in the developing markets, huge growth is expected in the smartphone market. For instance, 95% of all smartphones in India for instance cost less than €122,- (GFK, 2014).

    I think Google has the resources to bet on multiple initiatives that could possibly win the company market share in these high growth markets, and project ARA is just one of them.

    Some other examples of Google’s initiatives to make use of the growth in the smartphone segment in emerging markets:
    Android One Phone

    Google Project Loon

    Lemaitre, G. (n.d.). GFK. The smartphone boom in emerging markets. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

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