Project Ara – The Holy Grail

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A great quest likely to be sunk by the 2 E’s.

  • A modular mobile phone has been a dream of the mobile phone industry for many years and now Google is giving it a go.
  • Project Ara (see here) is a phone design which is a touch screen with a superstructure on the back where modules can plugged into a series of standardised sockets.
  • The idea here is that the consumer can chose exactly which specification he wants and then buy the relevant modules and plug them in.
  • This goes for battery, camera, chipsets, sensors, memory, storage and so on.
  • At Google I/O this year a prototype of this idea was shown but it really struggled to even to boot-up.
  • I believe that the engineering problems behind making this device a reality can be solved but the ergonomic and the economic issues will never work.

Ergonomics

  • A device of this type will always be bigger and clunkier than a regular design with exactly the same specification.
  • This is because it is custom components and system integration that allow such small packages to have top end performance.
  • The nature of this modular design prevents substantial parts of the device from being integrated together removing the usual space saving benefits gained.
  • Furthermore, standard connectors and the need for each component to be in a separate case will mean that there is far more material in this unit than a regular device.
  • Consequently, I think that almost all consumers will have very little interest in buying a device of this nature.

Economics

  • To make this device viable, every module will have be specifically designed to fit into one of the standard sockets.
  • Furthermore, every module will have to be cross-tested with every other module to ensure that they can all work together properly.
  • As more and more modules are produced there will be a combinatorial explosion in terms of the testing required to ensure that each module is fit for market.
  • On top of all of that, plug and play radios will make testing to pass operator and FCC testing much more onerous and expensive.
  • Consequently, the development costs of this device and the time to market will be much higher and much longer than regular devices of the same type.
  • Therefore I believe that this device will only have a chance at the low end where new technology takes much longer to come to market.
  • That means that the device will have sell in massive volumes in order to make back the very high development costs that have been expended to get it to market.

Take home message

  • This is why believe that this will remain nothing more than a science project.
  • Google has plenty of money to spend on finding the Holy Grail but the reality is that this idea is likely to prove as elusive as its namesake.

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