Before Nexus, before Pixel, Google was working on a modular cellphone called Project ARA. It was a different look at a cellphone technology. First off, it presumed that people would want to have their phone specifications. It also presumed that people wanted to upgrade their phones when they needed to, but were not willing to buy a whole phone. It also presumed that users wanted to have their unique phones.
The Future According to Project ARA
Project ARA had a lot of promise. It was bold, and it was also open-ended. With a modular phone, a manufacturer could just keep on producing batteries with a given form-factor. The improvements can be incremental, and these do not need to be tied up with any particular brand. A user might want to have a particular phone resolution which he can upgrade later, by just pulling out the camera module and popping in a new one. The same is true of all the other phone parts.
The modular phone was the first inkling that Google wanted to get into mobile phone hardware manufacturing. The timing for the release of the Project ARA phone was early 2017. It seems, however, that they were running several different phone hardware projects all at the same time. The Nexus and Pixel would only have been possible with separate.
Having a modular phone would also help lower repair costs. Rather, there would be a ready supply of parts and the user only needs to order these parts and assemble the phone on his own. Admittedly, there are only a few places where it is cheaper to have a phone repaired than to buy a new one. Even then, it would still be more cost-effective just to upgrade the parts which are no longer working or have become outdated.
Advantages for Google
Google wanted to make the phone obsolescence-proof. It also wanted to have a control of the parts which go into a phone. This idea could have been easily licensed to other phone manufacturers. The Nexus phone was licensed to HTC, and the Pixel specification was also meant to be licensed to other phone manufacturers. Licensing is a Google strength, and they leverage well with it.
It would have been like the early 1980’s when IBM introduced the PC. It was a modular machine with ready off-the-shelf parts. However, the current state of cell phone technology does not have off-the-shelf parts. These would have to be created by third-party or OEM manufacturers. Although there would be some who would buy parts for assembly, these would be a small minority.
Project ARA is all about modularity. It’s so modular that it is possible that it may not even be a phone. It can be a glucometer, a pedometer, a high-end camera, a night-vision video camera, or a full-fledged computer. There are already existing parts which can be swapped in and out of the base frame.
One reason that Apple is thriving because they cater to the premium market. They promote and sell their products at a premium price. However, Apple made sure that their products would be more affordable than they were. They were among the first which sold their products amortized via fixed contracts with the carriers. This plan, however, might not work with any phone out of Project ARA.
By any stretch of the imagination, Project ARA is not a premium product. Google might be able to sign a tie-up with a carrier, however, keeping track of the phone will be a problem. The moment it’s in the hands of a user, he can disassemble the thing and mix-and-match it with other phone parts.
In the same manner, the phone can be assembled from scratch. This is not entirely a bad thing. It will be a small project for a small number of people. They can always assemble it at the phone shop. However, the buying parts and then assembling it is not buying a whole phone.
The End of the Project
Google announced in September 2016 that they would be shelving Project ARA. Even as late as May, the company had announced that it had partnered with some hardware and cell phone manufacturers for parts as well as for licensing. Also, they had also promised the release of the Project ARA phone for early 2017.
The project started out with Motorola even before Google acquired the company. It has been in development for three years, and now it has been shelved. Google still plans to license the plans and development, but they may have their hands full with current phones of their own that ARA might not be given the due attention.
The Facebook Phone
In the wake of the Project ARA being shelved, Google also has a lot of people from the development team. This includes Rafa Camargo, who headed the project. His experience included work on the Motorola StarTAC, Razr, and DROID, and the Amazon Fire phone, before joining Google. On a positive note, most of the Project ARA team (including Camargo) has landed in Facebook.
For the cell phone industry, this only means one thing: a Facebook Phone in the coming days. There has been a lot of talk about Facebook entering the phone market, and with the wealth of personnel and resources, they are now in a better position to do so.
There were at least two other attempts at a modular phone. However, Project ARA was the most prominent and showed the most promise, if only because of Google’s deep pockets. Now that Google Pixel is out on the market, they can focus their attention on a phone of their own. In the meantime, with the newly acquired talent, Google is in a position to make good on rumors that they are set to go to market a mobile phone of their own.
The cell phone market is the next big battleground after the desktop has plateaued. The market is fluid, and anyone with the money can ante up and join the game. Facebook is in the best position to start their cell phone business, but for them to be able to make a dent, they have to show a very good product.