What Google is doing with its modular Project Ara smartphone is perhaps its grandest experiment yet: developing hardware out in the open as if it were software. Starting with a developer device this year and a consumer release in 2017, Google's ambition for Ara is to grow into a vast hardware ecosystem with an array of interchangeable parts and a range of compatible devices. In Google's ideal scenario, modules and components would be sold like apps from a digital store. It's a pretty picture — and a business executive's high fantasy — but I disagree with its entire premise. Google is indulging the worst of its quixotic impulses with Ara, simultaneously displaying arrogance toward established phone makers and some apparent naïveté about the existing competition.
Google thinks its methods for developing and controlling a software ecosystem can work in hardware because it's convinced of its own competence and acumen. Years of consistent success will do that to a company.
Is Google suffering from hubris?
One of Google's most successful products, Gmail, was out in public use for five years before it shed its beta label. Everything that Google does is incremental, whether we're talking about refinements of its web search algorithms, improvements to YouTube, or enhancements to Android. Each of its great billion-user services started life as a rudimentary outline of what it would eventually become. With all that experience of essentially working in public, Google has been trained to get its minimum viable product out to the masses as soon as it can and then iterate on it quickly.
I review phones for a living and I can tell you that sort of approach just doesn't work with hardware. Even modular hardware that might be expanded or upgraded down the line must demonstrate value on day one.
Gmail is free, whereas a Project Ara smartphone won't be. People's expectations for a minimum standard of quality skyrocket when they actually have to pay for a thing — and the construction and design standards for modern smartphones are now extremely high. We live in an age when $100 to $200 smartphones can have brilliant high-resolution displays, laser-focus cameras, multi-core processors, big batteries, and a slim metal design. How does an Ara smartphone possibly compete with that? There's no room left for disruption from below; you can't undercut a device like the Oppo F1 or any of its ilk out in China.
Project Ara is cool, but it just doesn't compel anyone to spend extra money on it
Google's key selling point around Ara will be greater versatility. You'll be able to plug in bigger speakers, extra batteries and displays, better cameras, vanity modules, and more niche parts like glucose meters. That's cool. A great deal of Project Ara is cool, but it just doesn't compel anyone to spend extra money on it. People who want more battery life or their own aesthetic signature can just get cases for their phone, while those who want a better camera will just buy it with the phone — because it's such an essential item.
Despite building expandability into the very architecture of Ara, Google is going to integrate the most basic components into the device, including the processing system-on-chip and the display. So no, the eternally upgradeable device will not be coming from Google. Your RAM, processor, and screen are all fixed, just as with most other Android phones. But unlike the others, Google's device will be thicker, to accommodate the extra connectors, and generally less space-efficient because of its physical fragmentation.
The downsides of modular phones are ironically permanent
Take a look at the Fairphone 2 for a good idea of what Ara might look and feel like. We all like to idly praise the Fairphone for its ethical ambition, but I don't see many of us rushing out to replace our slick iPhones and Galaxy handsets with a thick slab of hard-to-love plastic. The problem with modular phones is that you have to trade away thinness and structural integrity permanently in exchange for only an occasional enhancement in functionality.
Moreover, the whole Ara modularity bit has just been recreated by an iPhone case from Otterbox. Like Google, Otterbox has a bunch of partners like SanDisk and Square making accessories for its accessory. While we all might like the Project Ara smartphone as a cool gadget with fun interchangeable parts, it doesn't truly offer us anything special or unique, and we're unlikely to invest our money into it the way that Google has invested its own resources.
And why should we? Google has shown itself to be impatient, mercilessly killing off projects that fans might favor, but which no longer serve its interests. When Samsung pressured Google to dump Motorola, Google did the expedient thing and kept its biggest Android partner happy. Google Glass, the Nexus Q, Google Reader, Android@Home, Google TV, Gtalk, the list of demised projects is varied and long.
Remember the Asus PadFone? Much better in theory than in practice
We've seen Asus try and fail with its PadFone series of phones that jack into tablets — each one demanding a separate tablet, no intergenerational compatibility — and LG's new G5 modular phone comes with no concrete promises of forward support. From today's vantage point, Google is basically asking us to spend money on extras for a phone that won't be as pretty or as well designed as its more integrated competition.
Google's Ara project is not defined by a single piece of hardware, of course. The ultimate goal is for an entire ecosystem — organized by Google as the custodian but populated by big-name module makers like Panasonic, Samsung, and Toshiba — and a plethoric variety of options. The problem? When (or if) Google releases the Project Ara phone next year, it will be the only device that those modules can plug into. For me, Ara's best chance to demonstrate value lies in the versatility of the modules, not the phone itself. If I can switch my Ara camera between a compatible phone and tablet, or if I can take my additive Ara speakers off the phone and attach them to my IoT-connected wall mount, then I might start caring.
Google's big misstep with its Google Glass smart glasses was to just get the hardware out into the world and hope that compelling usage scenarios would emerge. Again, that might work with software, but with costly hardware it's just a recipe for limited adoption. Google Glass was also constrained by the brevity of its battery life, and so it's now on hiatus until Google's new hardware division decides that it's truly ready for the world.
Ara's biggest promise is also its biggest unknown
In its present state, the Google Ara smartphone just doesn't solve any real-world consumer problems. It's fundamentally a device about extras, but we've not seen what most of those extras can do in order to judge it fairly. And because those additive modules won't have any other device to slot into, the challenge for Google is to essentially prove that it can give us something more than a smartphone. At least to get non-geeky consumers interested at the start.
I think that's ultimately the issue I have with Google's big Ara announcement. What we have today is a phone packaged up in the feel-good vibes of a long-established modular gadget fantasy and the promise that all the extra bits for it will be totally radical. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but whenever a product's biggest promise is also its biggest unknown, I find myself deeply skeptical.