Google’s Project Ara has picked up pace with Time magazine now quoting an early 2015 launch for the modular smartphone. It’s one of those projects that could truly revolutionize its industry because Ara is an attempt to bring modularity and ecosystem dynamics to smartphone hardware.
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Project Ara used to be run out of Motorola Mobility, which Google sold to ambitious Chinese phone maker Lenovo. Ara, however stayed with Google. It transferred to the Android stable though kept its distance from Google’s Mountain View campus.
In fact Google was preempted in modular phones by Phonebloks, a start-up project with a stronger emphasis on using modular phones to prolong a product’s useful life.
Smartphones vendors have successfully resisted the ecosystem effect on their organizations. In software ecosystems dominate. And outside smartphones that effect is growing through modularity. Consultants Roland Berger reported last year in a survey of product modularization in Germany:
- Eighty-six percent of companies were using modular systems for their products and had been doing so for more than three years.
- Modular products accounted for 48 percent of a respondents’ total sales.
- Two-thirds of companies planned to increase their revenue share from modular products.
Modularity involves identifying the core elements of a product that become the platform onto which other components fit. Think of the hardware/software core as something like the Android platform, an infrastructure for other companies to do business on top of.
In the same spirit Google will host an Ara developers conference in April.
It would be wrong to see Google as the only purveyor of a new track in hardware innovation in smartphones or consumer electronics. Sony launched the Open SmartWatch Project last year and has earned plaudits for its work in Android Open Source Project because of its willingness to open up some design elements of the Xperia Z Tablet.
Intel too is taking an open source and modular approach to its 21st century robotics project. A bit far-fetched for some critics taste the project aims to create community around robotics, giving people the tools to create and exchange intelligent robots, using 3D printing. 3D printing will be an essential element of the Ara phone.
Something of the kind is also brewing in the field of biology with citizen labs becoming ever better established.
My own take on these developments is that they challenge us to radically rethink design. Design in the near future will be less about iconic combinations of form, interface and surface materials and more about the effects of compilation.
Put another way I would buy a phone that has the specifications that I want (probably including the best camera technology) but how can I influence its aesthetics? Is it going to be packaged in a black metal case or are designers going to reflect modularity in the shape of what I buy? If so how do they ensure all my component pieces add up to something pleasing? That might be where 3D printing comes in.
Meantime smartphones are catching up with hardware modularity and a new ecosystem is ready to be unleashed.