Word comes this week that Google has given up its plans to build modular smartphones with interchangeable parts, having cancelled all ongoing Project Ara efforts. According to reports by Reuters and Re/code.it appears that the price of the final handsets was going to be so high as to make viability questionable, as the modular phones lost some of the cost and performance advantages of hardware integration. The company reportedly plans to concentrate on other hardware projects, including its Chromebooks and various Android-based devices.

Google began to explore the concept of modular smartphones in 2012, and publicly announced its Project Ara in late October, 2013. The company thought that for many people it would make sense to configure their smartphones themselves and then upgrade modules, as new ones come out, instead of getting entirely new handsets.

Initially, Google considered building a fully modular smartphone with a PC-like architecture in a bid to enable upgrades of core components like SoC, antenna, sensors and so on. However, this required a lot of efforts in hardware standardization, interconnection, compatibility as well as software support. Back in May, the company announced changes of the Project Ara concept. Google said that core components of modular smartphones would not be upgradeable, but users would still be able to switch camera sensors, speakers and even add secondary displays. Google promised to introduce a working Project Ara model this fall and then release a commercial product for consumers in 2017.

Modern smartphones are self-contained, cannot be upgraded and their repair is often tricky at best. However, such integration allows manufacturers to make them sleeker and cheaper. By contrast, Google’s modular design appeared to be rather bulky. Moreover, Re/code reports that Google struggled to come out with a modular smartphone that could perform up to expectations and come in at a viable cost. The price of modules themselves was also a potential concern, as they'd need to be built to handle the modular system and wouldn't necessarily enjoy the high volume sales of a solitary phone design.

As it turns out, Rick Osterloh, the new senior vice president of hardware at Google, decided to cancel Project Ara even in its “limited” form announced back in May. The company will no longer invest in the project, but may license technologies and patents it developed over the past several years to parties interested in building their upgradeable smartphones, according to reports. Keep in mind though that Google yet has to confirm its intentions regarding Project Ara.

Recently Motorola came up with the Moto Mods idea to sell add-on accessories for its Moto Z smartphones. The add-ons can transform the handset into a camera with decent optics, a projector or a stereo system. Apparently, even though Project Ara is gone for good, the concept of add-ons for smartphones lives on.

Sources: Reuters, Re/code, The Verge.

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  • Impulses - Monday, September 5, 2016 - link

    Wow... Just wow. Reply
  • close - Monday, September 5, 2016 - link

    @boozed, don't bother dude. You should have known you're dealing with a "basement-expert" when he said that for such a modular phone concept "hardware standardization, interconnection, compatibility as well as software support" takes "a few days tops".

    This coming from a guy (yes, I will just say it again here ddriver) who says he invented a 5.25" hard drive (probably also took a few days tops) but the big manufacturers don't use it because it's all a conspiracy to keep capacities down and prices up.

    This should put in perspective his wall of text of meaningless "I sound smart" rants.
    Reply
  • Klug4Pres - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    Pretty much.

    It is also a problem of information asymmetry and time discounting. Quality can be difficult to observe pre-purchase, and there is uncertainty about the technological lifetime of a given product, so it is hard for consumers and manufacturers to converge on an agreed level of quality at a fair price. Competing manufacturers would find it easy to undercut the offer, offering worse products for a lower price.

    Thus it seems we have found an equilibrium of shitty products that last or are supported for two maybe three years.
    Reply
  • boozed - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    Some of us are entirely unsurprised but I can't believe the amount of euphoria that this idea generates every time it's suggested, especially among the STEM crowd (presumably the target audience) who should know better. Reply
  • zodiacfml - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    Right. Before the the days of the SoCs, we are already discussing integration of components for better costs and size in PC components.

    The Project Ara could have its niche though in industries requiring sensors and portable devices for their work where they can easily swap or upgrade sensors.
    Reply
  • mkozakewich - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    The better idea would be to stay away from the $700 flagships and go for $200-$300 phones that improve all their features every three years.

    Buying cheaper tends to limit you to functionally-older technology, but that just means my new 5mm $200 device is roughly the power of an iPhone 5.
    Reply
  • easp - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    Anyone with any consumer product design sense knew from the get-go that this was doomed.

    I'm not sure that it was ever more than an expensive PR effort pandering to fools/experts who were certain that the smartphone market would develop like the then much smaller personal computer market had, decades before.

    Anything from anyone who gave Aria favorable coverage should be viewed with suspicion.
    Reply
  • stephenbrooks - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    On my desk right now there's a Raspberry Pi with a 5" touchscreen and wi-fi dongle and there's a USB battery that can power it for 5.5 hours. It's way too thick for now, but I'd bet that a PC-like, smartphone-sized hardware system will be coming in the future. But in the form of a small PC rather than a phone, although it could presumably emulate a phone if given a 4G+SIM add-on. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    The big problem is parts cost. Big players do a lot of integration and their expenses are very low, but I doubt they would be willing to sell those parts to consumers without actual devices with fat profit margins.

    A standalone GSM + GPS module alone would set you back 50$, and not only is it too bulky to begin with, but it will be terribly dated and slow 2G. It would cost YOU 50$ to get a bulky slow and outdated modem alone, it costs them 10$ to make an entire SOC with CPU memory and blazing newgen modem in it.

    Of course, it could be done, but for obvious reasons it will not be done - the industry is too greedy and lousy, and it doesn't care about people having freedom, options and future proof products, the industry is all about trapping people, making them dependent, giving them no choice other than to be milked. The only choice you might end up having is to select your milker. But the option to not get milked is not even on the table.

    They hold all the cards, they make the chips, and even if some smaller yet capable enough company strays from the pack and begins making and selling decent integrated solutions, they will use patent trolling to destroy it.
    Reply
  • stephenbrooks - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    I hear you about Apple and Google having no incentive to do this.

    Not so gloomy about parts - I can see 4G USB dongles online for $40 although not with GPS by the look of it.

    This would be helped if the next generation of ultra-SFF PCs tried to get the whole motherboard to sit behind a 5" touchscreen for example (and use those sockets where RAM and small daughterboard modules sit parallel to the mainboard and push into place sideways). The Pi is already smaller than that but low performance; compute sticks are also small enough but slightly the wrong shape.

    Smartphone companies would have trouble suing over that, because it's just a smaller implementation of the PC. They might try to sue over ideas in the touchscreen GUI software I guess, but other companies have got around that and implemented similar systems before. The 4G module is really the only difficult part remaining, since companies are already making 5" diagonal USB powerpacks.
    Reply

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