When the world first heard that plans were underway to make a modular Android smartphone, the reception seemed decidedly split: many relished the idea of an almost Lego-like product that could be customized and crafted however the user wished. On the other hand, some felt it would lead to needless waste, or had no appeal to them and their needs whatsoever. Project Ara was, and is, without a doubt a very interesting, exciting concept. Unfortunately, it will also be one that interested parties need practice their patience for, as it has now officially been delayed until 2016, with the test market(s) now unknown.
Back in January, Google announced that Project Ara would see release in a test market, Puerto Rico, later this year. At the same time, it released a “Moto Maker” type customization app that would allow those interested to get a feel for just what could be done with the hardware and its myriad number of swappable components. Team AA was so excited about the prospects of such a device that we even devoted a full-blown discussion to it. While the idea of Ara was indeed idealistic, the device was, at that point, still very much a conceptual one. Fast forward to May, and a working build was finally revealed to the public. It looked as if things were, for lack of a better phrase, coming together nicely.
As far as major news went, Project Ara was again off the radar until this past weekend, when it was discovered -via official Tweets- that Google was rethinking the Puerto Rico test launch. Speculation immediately began as to what this meant for the ambitious project, and with the latest Tweets we now know the current “fate”.
Why Project Ara matters
Project Ara is, in no small way, a revolution of sorts for the mobile market. As things stand now, consumers buy a finished product, none of which offer very much in terms of after-sale customization save for interchangeable battery door covers and whatnot. A modular smartphone would allow users to literally assemble their device-of-choice from scratch, and literally pick it apart piece-by-piece.
In theory, this would mean that a smartphone would never be out of date. Instead of having to buy an entirely new product just because you wanted more RAM or storage or a faster CPU, Ara would allow for simple removing the unit that contains the outdated part and inserting the updated or upgraded component. In theory, this would also mean that consumers who operate on a more budget-conscious purchasing pattern could gradually build the phone they would like to have without having to sink money into a low-end product that is fixed and finite. Even from a more fundamental level, the modular components could become similar to trading cards in that users could exchange theirs with others to create or modify further.
It also goes without saying that the prospect of the Project have untold benefits with respect to design: just look at the beautiful colors and designs in the sample images contained in this post alone. Instead of imagining a phone as a single unified entity with a single unified design, instead various motifs or patterns or colors could be laid out in any number of ways. Suddenly the smartphone becomes the an instantly visible way to showcase personal creativity and expression.
What’s going on?
Ultimately, it’s difficult to say what has caused the current setback for Project Ara. Officially, the answer is as follows:
Truth be told, creating a single unified smartphone is a sizable task in-and-of-itself. While companies like Samsung can release dozens and dozens of models per year, they are veteran players with established production and logistic channels. Just imagine then, the prospect of the new kid on the block and the challenges he or she might face. Now add in potentially hundreds of device configurations and combinations from component suppliers around the world. This is an awesome task to be sure, and the idea that it might take a bit longer than initially expected shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
Glass was a gas
Another reason that might have contributed to the delay of Project Ara is the current status of Google Glass. Despite the incredible reception it found at Google I/O 2013 -where interested parties literally had to plunk down a cache of cash just to reserve one- the project was somewhat tainted by the “Glasshole” experience and aforementioned cost, as well as the fact that it had poor battery life and extremely limited availability. In the end Google essentially made Glass purchasable to anyone interested, however this was essentially seen as “liquidation”: the company wanted to clean house and sell the remaining first-generation products.
If the modular smartphone is truly to take off, it must hit the ground running from the get-go.
While it does look like Glass will eventually see a second generation released, the scope is clearly far more curtailed than the very ambitious “one for all” vision Google originally had. It is quite possible that, after seeing the problems associated with the wearable, Mountain View has decided to adopt a much more careful and calculated approach to the ongoing development and subsequent release of Project Ara: if the modular smartphone is truly to take off, it must hit the ground running from the get-go.
What’s going to happen?
Believe it or not, Project Ara was actually conceived back in 2013, and by Motorola at that. Despite the sale of the company to Lenovo last year, Google retained ownership of the project. Given the amount of time, cost, and work that has already been put into Project Ara, it would be extremely unlikely for it to be canceled.
While only Google itself knows the reason Puerto Rico will no longer serve as the first test market, the idea that other U.S. locations are being considered is still good news. Google has, in ventures such as Project Fi or Project Fiber, deliberately begun with a smaller scale, and then gradually started expanding. Perhaps a local city or town inside the Continental-U.S. will be chosen as the first market; perhaps multiple sites will be selected.
We want to hear from you! How has the delay of Project Ara affected your interest in the project? Do you think it will eventually release? Do you think Google will cancel it? Could there be some kind of other reason for the delay? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below and let us know!