Project Ara’s story is all about wasted potential

Even worse than Google Glass' demise

After rumors recently surfaced about the cancellation of Project Ara, we now have confirmation from Google that their highly ambitious modular phone will no longer reach the consumer market. Reasons were somewhat vague, but what we do know is that it’s being done to “streamline the company’s hardware efforts.”

It was only last May when we witnessed a revived desire from Google to push the product, complete with a cool trailer and announcement of a possible consumer launch next year. Progress before and after the unveiling was typically silent, and we’ve finally confirmed that it’s been an internal structure issue all along. Now, we think about what could have been a savior for the smartphone industry.

The beginning of the end

Imagine presenting a prototype of your company’s next big thing in front of a worldwide audience, only for it to freeze during bootup and fail to even reach the home screen. No, I’m not talking about an episode of Silicon Valley. That’s actually the nightmare Google experienced back in 2014 when it presented a “working” prototype of its first modular smartphone. Thinking about it now, the incident summarizes the current situation really well.

Project Ara (1)

In the most recent build of Project Ara, you had all the functions you’d expect from the modern-day smartphone you’re accustomed to, along with the ability to plug in your choice of modules to add greater functionality. Upgrades ranging from cameras to replaceable batteries stylishly fit into the main frame to create one unified pocket computer. If you think the process is as simple as playing with Lego blocks, you’re absolutely right.

An eternity in the tech world

What could this have meant for consumers had it become a commercial product? It would have been a possible game-changer in terms of phone upgrade cycles. With a smartphone having limitless module options to keep you busy, ordering that newly launched Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone wouldn’t be as tempting anymore.

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However, it’s been a long two years since the initial reveal, and much has changed.

It’s important to take note that Project Ara was no longer a fully modular smartphone as of May 2016. The Google phone had its core components fixed into the main frame, meaning you couldn’t touch the processor, internal storage, RAM, and front display. This became a potential deal-breaker for enthusiasts wanting a PC-like handheld gadget they can fiddle around with on the go. The development led to disappointment from the community and the product’s eventual downfall, but it might have also been able to entice a more mainstream market wanting a simpler package.

Project Ara (2)

In exchange for the loss of complexity, the last build came with welcome refinements. Plug and play was possible with certain modules, wherein you could hot swap the unit while the phone was on and even share with other Ara users on the spot. If you wanted to get fancy, saying “Okay Google, eject the camera” commanded the phone to do as it’s told.

Google’s very own

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal Project Ara was when it was first announced at Google I/O 2014. Modular phone schematics were tossed around brainstorming sessions prior to that, but it was only when Google unveiled a (partially) working prototype that this concept became closer to commercial reality. Still, the fact that it froze shortly after being turned on established how much of a pipe dream it was back then, and how it continues to be one now.

During Project Ara’s downtime, a couple of companies took a crack at modular designs in attempts to overshadow the hype Google built and lost. The Fairphone 2 was the first modular phone to officially hit the market, and the LG G5 garnered even bigger headlines as a totally revamped flagship device with modular Friends you could attach to its Magic Slot. Most recently, Lenovo launched the Moto Z series, which proves that even partial modularity is still alive and kicking.

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And yet, the latest announcement from Google I/O 2016 was more than just about a potential date and a sweet new trailer for Project Ara. Google was finally going to release a smart device that’s truly theirs – free of any partnership from the likes of Huawei or HTC in their long-running Nexus program.

The company’s previous attempt at controlling the hardware process came when it acquired Motorola in 2012. Google then became a competitor for a long list of smartphone brands that rely on Android as their sole operating system. This didn’t fly well with major players such as LG and Samsung, who subsequently secured backups in WebOS and Tizen, respectively, in case Google would suddenly favor its own manufacturing process for the latest Android updates, ultimately discriminating against loyal associates.

It’s uncertain how Project Ara would have impacted the search giant’s relationship with hardware partners as an indirect competitor, since modular phones might create a category of their own some day.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Ironically, the highly customizable Project Ara proved that you didn’t have total control over the aesthetics and feel. While the dimensions and weight of the device vary depending on the components equipped, you’re going to end up with a bulky, blocky handset no matter what. LG saw through the weaknesses of a largely modular phone to produce the G5 we’re enjoying today. By allowing only partial modularity from the bottom end of its current flagship, the primary build remains largely intact, so there’s no need to worry about assembling a hideous product.

Our recent unboxing and hands-on review of the G5 and its add-ons showcased how much promise there is in upgrading your handset before committing to a completely different phone the following year or two. Lenovo followed shortly after with the Moto Z and its growing lineup, but it’s too early to gauge its success.

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We’ve been wanting these possibilities for a while now. Smartphone technology in general has stagnated in the past years, with every manufacturer heavily focusing on simply improving on the touchscreen-optimized formula Apple established nearly a decade ago with the original iPhone. If your current smartphone already has a high-resolution display, fast-acting camera, accurate fingerprint scanner, and either a glass or metal physique, there isn’t much more you can ask for outside the realm of modularity. Well, probably better battery life, but we’ll never be satisfied with that, right?

Speaking of batteries, with news of entire Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units being recalled because of a single part, swappable components might be the solution to new-age manufacturing woes.

Or maybe, we simply aren’t ready yet for the complexity of a fully modular smartphone. Consumers have finally moved past DIY solutions for PCs in exchange for the simplicity of owning a razor-thin notebook or all-in-one laptop with as much, if not more, power. Complicating the everyday smartphone could just as easily backfire, and discriminate against users who aren’t that tech-savvy.

It’s not just about the modules anymore

Going back to Google I/O 2014, one of the presenters posed this question: Why choose a phone for its camera, when you could choose a camera for your phone? Project Ara’s vision remained the same until its demise, but we now have a more daunting question to ask: Since we’ve already reached the pinnacle of touchscreen-smartphone convenience, when will we be ready to embrace a more complex form factor?

Project Ara’s Twitter account once wondered if fans were still around after one of its long hiatuses. We, the consumers, haven’t left yet, and taking a look at the official website shows how the developers themselves haven’t let go of the project either.

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce

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  • Karlo Samson September 3, 2016   Reply →

    Great long-form piece, Marvin. Despite Google tossing Project Ara into the Batman dustbin of tech almost-history, I have to applaud them for even attempting it. “Not failure but low aim is crime.” I think Carl Sandburg said that.

  • Karlo Samson September 3, 2016   Reply →

    Batman dustbin? Crazy autocorrect.

    • Marvin Velasco September 3, 2016   Reply →

      Batman dustbin kinda makes sense too, haha. But yes, I’m still hoping for a third party to pick up the project and turn it into a reality.

  • Digvijay singh kashyap September 4, 2016   Reply →

    LG G5 and MOTO z series is doing far better than Goggle’s project. at least they have started something related to the modular smartphones.

    • Marvin Velasco September 5, 2016   Reply →

      That’s true. A released product is always better than one stuck in the prototype stage.

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