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Project Ara: Can it find success, or is it just too ambitious?
Earlier this week Google held its latest Ara developer conference, showing off the new module development kit, the new spiral 2 hardware and they even revealed their initial plans for a pilot program in Puerto Rico sometime later this year. Despite how ambitious Project Ara is, it is clear that Google is pushing forward with the idea and is almost ready for a commercial rollout. With this in mind, for this week’s Friday Debate we ask do you think that that modular phones can find success in the market? If not, what will hold it back?
As is our recent custom, we start out the Friday Debate by hearing from our community, followed by members of Team AA and finally we’ll give our readers the opportunity to voice their opinion in the comments section. For those interested, our Friday Debate podcast will also be coming down the pipe a little later today — so stay tuned to AA for that.
When google announced Project Ara, I was excited. The idea of constructing a phone to your preference is crazy and something that could be leading the market in the future I think. Why? If you think about it, looking back at all the phones created last year, a lot of them left consumer’s wanting something more or occasionally, less. Take the HTCOne m8; amazing build, good specs, sense 6 and so on, there was just one problem, the duo 4 ultrapixel cameras left many questioning whether that would be the right phone. This is how Ara would be able to resolve such a misfit, changing the camera or just the specs of the phone means that consumer’s can’t complain about a missing feature.
I’m not sure if this is true, but I’ve heard that the body for the Ara phone is around $50, I’m not certain about the price, but that’s brilliant (assuming the parts aren’t expensive). It’s a very reasonable price if it all adds to just around $100 in a developing market. With the current state of technology at hand and the target for all markets, it may seem like Ara is ready to enter its era. Now we’ll just have to wait for the response from Puerto Rico.
While yeah, it’s a great idea in concept, it wouldn’t work in real life.
First of all, you need to have parts to actually pick from, so you’ll need to have manufacturers making parts for the phone. You’ll (presumably) be swapping parts in and out often. This will probably wear down the connecting mechanisms over time or screw up something if you put something in the wrong slot. And in the long-term, how will it stand up? My DS Lite has the stylus holder becoming loose, will it be a similar situation for the phone? Will parts fall off easily? Will they stay too stuck and be very hard to swap parts in and out? And again, support. Who’s going to manufacture the parts and will they support or just push out one update and abandon it? And how about compatibility? If one module won’t work with the other, that could be a problem. And will it be future proof? If it’s native resolution is 1080p, can it handle a 2.5K screen? A 20 MP camera?
While it is nice to have such a cool concept, I don’t think it’s ready for mass-production. Google will probably keep it like Google Glass, like an alpha of a product.
What Team AA has to say
Now that you’ve had a look at what community members Mewtwo and Shawny had to say, it’s time for Team AA to weigh in:
Whether Project Ara is a success or not depends on how we measure success! If we look at Google Glass then I think we can call it a success and a failure. It was a success because it explored new ideas, not only in terms of technology, but also socially. I think it taught us that we don’t want people wearing gadgets that can record everything we do and say. Since Google is taking it back to the drawing board then it was a failure, as it didn’t work over the long run.So for Project Ara we need to define what we mean by success. I would like to propose three criteria. First, will it change user’s expectations about their mobile devices? Second, will it still be available in three to five years time? Third, will it make any money?
If Project Ara succeeds in any two of these criteria then I think we can call the project a success. But let’s look at those criteria in detail.
Will it change the user’s expectations? This is important, not only for mobile devices, but also for all areas of technology. Because all technology is ultimately driven by revenue there are levels of compatibility and interoperability that we don’t reach.
What Project Ara shows us is that you can have technology from one vendor that works in co-operation with another. The consumer becomes the decision maker. As Neo put it, “Choice, the problem is choice.”
A phrase that a friend of mine and I used to say often was, “the computer won’t let me.” It was an epitaph to the freedoms we have lost with technology. Don’t get me wrong, technology has given us much, but we have also lost some things.
Moving swiftly on… Will project Ara be available in three to five years time? Or in other words, will it fail to gain momentum and like Google Glass be called a good experiment and cancelled. I hope not. I think there is enough about Ara that will make it attractive to a certain category of people. I think the concept is interesting enough that it will gain a sizable following, but the key will be price. At the end of the day if I can have a phone which is completely non-customizable, but it costs half the price of a customizable one, then a lot of people will save the money and go with a “standard” device. If it is going to cost me $1000 to buy all the modules and build an Ara phone, then forget it. But if Google can make it happen in the $300 to $500 range, depending on what modules I want, then it will work.
And that leads me to the final criteria. Money. Will it make money? Not only for Google, but also for the module makers. It doesn’t need to make billions, it just needs to make a profit for Google and for the module makers. I think that is possible. And if I am right then a whole new industry will be created!
I’d be pleasantly surprised if Project Ara ever makes it into the mainstream, but I can’t see the average consumer mulling over which camera module or processing package they would prefer. However, there is a strong, albeit smaller market of smartphone and gadget enthusiasts that I’m sure will jump at the opportunity to customize their own hardware, myself included.
Early module options and the skeletal frame are looking good and I think it’s about time the hardware made its way into the hands of a small number of consumers. If nothing else, simply to test the waters, check for early issues, and stir up a little interest from developers who can flesh the product out with additional modules and software which Ara’s engineers may not have thought of. Third party support is going to be key, so I think it’s time to engage with the market.
Of course, pricing is going to be the decisive factor. If modules are reasonably priced and a basic unit can be put together for cheap, then Ara could end up as a viable alternative to the budget smartphone. The option to upgrade to a better camera or display in the future is much better than knowing you’ll have to throw your whole phone out for a new one in a couple of
I’m eager to try it out, but I’m certainly not expecting Ara to replace traditional smartphones. That said, there’s certainly potential for success here.
Project Ara is an extremely interesting concept that in my eyes could go 3 ways: 1. It will be a complete and utter flop…2. It will revolutionize the smartphone game as we know it…3. It will exist, be interesting, but won’t appeal to the mainstream. I’ll quickly break down each reason and how I feel about it.
Scenario 1: Complete and utter flop, and the second most likely scenario. This could happen for a number of reasons, including: If the design looks too nerdy and complicated, if manufacturers don’t take developing interchangeable modules for it seriously, if it’s fantastic and smartphone OEMs cry foul, if the modules or “frame” are too expensive, if the software isn’t updated in a timely enough fashion to play nice with new modules (buggy with tons of crashes), and if it’s not marketed in a VERY clever fashion. Those are just a few reasons why this thing could simply crash and burn when it arrives. While the concept is fantastic, remember that the majority of people would still opt to buy a new PC instead of simply upgrading the components. While updating components for Ara would (hopefully) be a lot simpler than that, consumer minds will really have to be tailored to getting used to the concept.
Scenario 2: It will revolutionize the smartphone game. Third most likely scenario. Highly unlikely at THIS point in time, but the potential is there depending on how well it works, pricing, how the end product looks, how easy it is to use for non tech savy consumers, and how seriously module makers take creating components for it. Let’s just say that they nail the design, the price point is right, and component makers are feeling it. If all of these things would happen, and if it would be marketed in a way to where consumers see the benefits of it, how could it NOT change the industry completely? A phone that you could custom build and upgrade on a whim, while possibly even swapping out components with friends, which is even bundled into a sexy looking device that could in essence kill the concept of buying a new phone every two years? Every OEM and their mother would build their own frame and components for it if that happened, with an entirely new consumer category/base being created in the process. Depending on the quality of modules, health organizations, athletes, engineers and so many other professionals could find uses for this device. The possibilities on paper are mind boggling.
Scenario 3: It will exist but won’t appeal to the mainstream. This is probably (sadly) the most realistic scenario. The device will come out, component makers will think “meh” and develop some decent modules for it, it will be priced in a way that won’t be realistic enough to turn mainstream consumers towards buying it, and it won’t be marketed in a way to see the true benefits of it’s amazing potential (I’m looking at you Microsoft Surface Pro). Because of that, it won’t be taken seriously enough to get the massive amounts of attention it would need on a software level to run smoothly, which will result in very buggy versions of it being released, which would turn people away from it immediately. It would also have to be priced in a way that makes sense for a consumer, and bundled in a very sexy design. Those 2 things don’t often go together, and with a concept this huge, I don’t see anyone taking it seriously enough to get it right anytime soon.
Maybe it’s too ahead of its time, but I simply can’t see it being a hit, as its success depends on way too many factors that I don’t trust anyone to take it seriously enough. OEMs nowadays don’t even update their flagships regularly. Could you imagine how lazy they would be with a device like this?
This device is booming with potential, and I for one will buy one. But unless some company takes it more serious than they have ever taken any previous smartphone they have ever released (it will need that attention), or unless a new company enters the market that makes Ara its main focus, then this will remain something for tech enthusiasts only. It’s sad and I hate to admit it, but that’s how I see this playing out.
Project Ara is quite possibly the most interesting thing to hit smartphones since…well perhaps ever. For everyone who has ever complained about their device being “almost perfect” to those seeking to modify and modernize, it’s like a dream come true. I’m actually somewhat confused how people could not like Ara, if only for the fact that it can be anything and everything to anyone and everyone.
At the most basic conceptual level, I can easily see kids in schools trading the parts like they might cards, toys, or other items. Especially if the parts are indeed cheap and come in a variety of different shapes and colors, it makes even more sense. Likewise, I can see others swapping parts and pieces on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps one day, someone needs to take some high resolution photos and needs a large camera module. Then the next they don’t need any camera whatsoever and simply remove the part and apply something else instead.
That’s what makes Ara so exciting: you can seemingly customize it as you please. Instead of OEMs dictating what you want, much like carriers do with software or firmware, you can have total control over your digital device. Think of the battery saving element alone if you could suddenly swap out the (possible) Snapdragon 810 CPU and replace it with a 400 simply because you don’t need to have such power and performance. Or what about for those who don’t have the money up front to buy a premium product and need something now, but want to buy one later on: why bother purchasing an all-new device entirely when you can just swap a few pieces?
Perhaps my interest in Ara is a result of growing up with Legos and various toys and action figures that had swappable parts. The idea just seems perfectly natural, and everything I’ve seen so far, in terms of the look and feel of the hardware itself, just reinforces my optimism. While I hardly think Ara will be anything other than a novelty item or fad in the grand scheme of things, it allows for so much more than a final fabricated piece of circuit board could ever do, and in a way that makes it immediately accessible to the masses, unlike say, modifying a PC.
Now it’s your turn
You’ve heard from our community and Team AA, now it’s your turn. What OEM handsets are you most looking forward to? What other kind of Android-related devices are you hoping to see this year? Tell us what you think in the comments!