Why Project Ara failed: technology is not yet advanced enough for modular smartphones

Modular smartphones would have adversely impacted revenues of OEMs, without providing any real advantage to end users.

Google is suspending project Ara, an effort to introduce modular smartphones into the market. The move is an attempt to streamline Google's hardware offerings, and comes at around the same time as the sunsetting of the Nexus line of products. The Nexus program might be re-branded as Pixel.

Modular smartphones currently suffer from a number of problems, that could mean that it was too early for the introduction of such phones in the mass market, and that Project Ara was doomed to fail from the start itself. Indeed, it is easier to say so in hindsight. A regular phone has all the components in one housing. Modules require each component to be housed along with interface elements. This increases the bulk of the device, and at the same time adding to the total cost of the entire device. This space could be used to house a better phone, with more storage or more battery capacity.

Google's Project Ara could have been a stage for hardware wars to have been fought out. However, an increasing number of hardware options has made Android notoriously fragmented. Telecom service providers, original equipment manufacturers and Google have to co-ordinate to develop and deploy updates. A modular smartphone would have made the Android ecosystem even more fragmented. The Android ecosystem has always been about open source, and Project Ara could potentially have kickstarted a race for smartphone modules. However, such an effort would be counter productive to manufacturers. They would have to maintain the modules longer, and their revenues would have taken a hit.

The userbase always wants something new, with the development of richer content. Older phones are just not powerful enough to handle the improvements immersive experiences including gaming, video and virtual reality. Even if modules somehow manage to work for longer periods of time, then supporting them for longer periods is a problem for the manufacturer. Eventually, software support is going to cease, which is going to render the module useless, and preventing modular smartphones from actually benefiting the end user, or reducing e-waste.

Another thing users want is room for self expression. The offerings by Xiaomi, OnePlus, Motorola, Samsung, Apple all have varying design approaches that are unique devices with personality. The Creo Mark 1 tried to remain fresh by updating the software every month. Modular smartphones allow for more customisation sure, but pro users would have settled at optimum configurations at certain price points. Changing the modules out does not really change the smartphone itself. Do consumers really want to be stuck with the same smartphone for ever?

Project Ara started as a structural frame that holds various smartphone components together. There are smartphone modules available in the market already, that do not suffer from fragmentation or space problems, and still deliver the experience of customisation and personalisation in the form of clip on extras for the smartphones. There are lenses, keyboards, battery packs and devices for expanding device storage available in the market. The Nexpaq offers the same functionality as a modular phone, while being a smartphone case.

Reducing e-waste is one of the reasons for public in modular smartphones. However, the pace of technological development means that the modules are going to get out of data at the same rate, witch significant yearly improvements in all major components. Battery capacity is increasing, mega pixel size is increasing, memory capacity is expanding, processor power is increasing and new sensors and scanners are being added continuously. This means that modular design will not really serve the purpose of reducing e-waste, and it is better to mine e-waste continuously for the precious metals, as Japan does.

There have been some been interesting developments around the idea of modular smartphones of late. The LG G5 is a unibody aluminium smartphone with a removable battery. One of the basic design factors of a removable battery is a longer life for the device, which reduces waste. The device was expensive though, and failed to generate much interest in the market. Toshiba had developed camera modules for the Ara device, and further development of modules may stop after Google scrapping Ara. Xiaomi had leaked images of a project Ara like modular phone concept, but nothing seems to have come out of that either.

For those who really wanted to use modular smartphones, all hope is not lost. The technology developed for Project Ara may live on in licensed third party products. While Google Glass is no longer available to consumers, companies such as Boeing are still integrating the technology into its workflows.

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