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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  • boeush - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    I've always felt the idea behind Ara would have been better suited to laptops/tablets/AIOs (not of the ultra-thin variety, though.)

    I mean, who wouldn't like the ability to easily swap/upgrade the screen, or keyboard, or speakers, or port panel(s), or touchpad, or motherboard/CPU or GPU or memory or storage - without having to disassemble half the machine and sweating bullets about potential compatibility problems in case the upgrade is even possible in the first place?

    Granted, a company like Google is less likely to lead on that than, say, Intel. But then again, Google has ventured into PC space with Chromebooks already - so why not try to push further and continue disrupting the status quo?
    Reply
  • fanofanand - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    This makes a lot more sense for tablets especially, but I think they could get away with simply allowing a GPU, storage, and memory swap. Make the screen and body one piece. With the form factor you don't have to worry as much about the bulk. Reply
  • sweetca - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    Weird. Google starts a project and subsequently abandons it. Reply
  • Mugur - Monday, September 5, 2016 - link

    Maybe one other reason for cancelling was that the growth factor for the smartphone market is currently quite flat. Probably we are not far from the "good enough" state of current desktop and notebook markets? Also, this modular approach never really succeeded in notebooks (comparing with desktops), so why would succeed in smartphones where more technological barriers should be passed? Reply
  • boeush - Monday, September 5, 2016 - link

    "this modular approach never really succeeded in notebooks" -- ???

    I don't know if it was ever even tried. There's a modicum of modularity with most laptops allowing you to upgrade/replace memory and some drives. And yes, some laptop makers had modular bays where you could swap an extra battery for an optical drive or a hard drive or some such. But -- all these solutions were always proprietary, with total vendor lock-in; nobody ever tried to create a common standard or a robust ecosystem around them.

    And beyond/besides all that, has there ever been a laptop that allowed you to upgrade/replace the screen? Or the keyboard? Or the network controller or WiFi radio or the webcam or the fingerprint reader, etc? (For instance, the fingerprint reader on my current laptop is really flaky, but I like all the other components... well mostly. I'd sure like to be able to replace the fingerprint reader with a better one -- but the monolithic design precludes such a possibility.)
    Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Monday, September 5, 2016 - link

    Very sad news indeed.

    Working for a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, I was mindful of the physical and electronic limitations they'd be presented with, however, I had hoped that if anyone's money could do it - Google's could.
    Reply
  • Wolfpup - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    I'm not even remotely surprised the project's dead, but it would have been cool... Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - link

    Google kills product, shocking. Reply
  • Gunbuster - Monday, September 12, 2016 - link

    The engineers milked this project for all it was worth. They should send a gift basket to whoever cooked up those slick CG renders though. That gave them at minimum +1 year on the doomed project as uber geeks diddled to the images.

    Top misstep: the shoddy real life modules with rainbows and golden retrievers printed on them...
    Reply
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