Author(s): Peter Bryer
Has mass production met a mighty foe in modularity?
The modular phone concept is an intriguing idea: simply buy the hardware features you want now, and upgrade with satisfying snap-on components like better speakers, bigger batteries and health care sensors. This system camera-like architecture isn't completely new to the handset business — smartphone owners can already customise their devices with SIM cards and SD cards, Square Readers, colourful cases and, of course, apps. Paul Eremenko, Google's visionary head of Project Ara, wants to further this by enabling a hardware bazaar of interchangeable gadgets that sit snugly on a Google-made "endoskeleton".
Mr Eremenko spoke last week about his long-term ambitions for modular phones. He expects the devices to disrupt the smartphone industry entirely, bringing the basic building blocks to users and enabling them to add to these according to their needs and budgets. Mr Eremenko expects that Wi-Fi-enabled endoskeletons will be available from Google for $50 from as early as 2015. A beta version of the Module Developers Kit is alreadyavailable for download, and the company is offering a $100,000 prize for what it judges as the most innovative Project Ara module.
This is impressive forward momentum, but CCS Insight believes that the economic and logistical challenges of modular phones will be difficult to overcome (see Google Launches Build-Your-Own-Phone Project Ara) and that Google's energies to bring connected devices to another 5 billion users could be better spent. We understand that certain new technologies (such as functional 3G printing) are interesting developments for the industry, but the efficiency of mass-produced phones built with standardised components will be the greatest competitive hurdle for modular devices to overcome.
Project Ara is also competing with Google's Android One, which aims to introduce low-cost devices to billions, and Firefox has unveiled its own ambition to bring the $25 smartphone to developing markets.
Handset modularity hasn't had a smooth past. In 2007, Israeli-based Modu sparked interest in modular phones with the concept of "jackets" — enclosure into which the phone's core was inserted. However, the company folded in 2011, and Google purchased several of its patents. We have since seen a series of modular projects from several major handset manufacturers, but few of these have gone ahead; Xiaomi's Magic Cube and ZTE's Eco Mobius project are examples of modular phone ventures that are very unlikely to reach realisation.
There's no doubt that Project Ara could grow in ways not even Google could imagine. However, if the intentions are to find an innovative way to spread connectivity across the globe in an environmentally conscious manner (as the company states), we believe that Google would be better off supporting a robust secondary market for devices, and continuing to expand its partnerships with manufacturers. For now, the theories and realities of modularity are still too far apart.