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Back from the dead: Google breathes new life into Project Ara with a developer kit and conference

Google's modular phone moonshot Project Ara is getting its own developer conference in April. Will U.S. consumers be able to build their own phones before building their own cell phone plan?

 

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Image: Google

Google is known as a company that has the energy and gumption to take risks with ambitious projects, even if they think it might fail. One of these such moonshots is Google's Project Ara, a modular smartphone that allows users to upgrade individual parts without buying a new phone.

Project Ara grew out of Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. There is even still a website for Motorola Ara. Google maintained this special group after the Lenovo deal and ATAP will head up the conference on April 15 and 16, which will be the first of three developer conferences for Ara. The conference will take place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

The project was initially met with criticism, but Google is moving forward with the project announcing the first Project Ara Developer Conference that will take place online, but you might be able to get an in-person invite if you develop something cool for the also-announced module developer's kit (MDK).

The origin of Ara can be traced back to a YouTube video for modular Phonebloks concept released by creator Dave Hakkens. The team at then-Google-owned Motorola Mobility partnered with Hakkens to get the support of the Phonebloks community and announced Project Ara in October 2013. According to Gartner's Ken Dulaney the concept is not novel, but the conference is a classic Google move—open it up and let the market experiment.

"I think it's a great idea. Puts creativity in the masses, so to speak. The modular concept is not new, however," Dulaney said. "An Israeli company called Modu tried this a few years ago but was very unsuccessful. But, as an open project I think it has legs."

The modular smartphone idea is that smartphone owners would be able to upgrade the individual modules that were important to them instead of purchasing an entirely new phone. So, if you want to upgrade the camera, you pop out the camera module and replace it with a better one. The same goes for the phone's processor or battery.

Modu focused on small and light phones with changeable handsets, but the concept never really took off. They ended up abandoning a planned IPO and laying off most of their staff. Modu's phone was completely different in terms of audience and capabilities, but carried a similar modular concept to Ara. Google will probably never face the risk of closing its doors, at least not in the near future, but we have to wonder if Project Ara is a legitimate business idea or just an experiment in innovation.

The goal is to open-source the hardware aspect of smartphones. Project Ara is supposed to lessen electronic waste and give the control back to the smartphone owner; hopefully keeping you from shelling out piles of cash for a new phone due to "planned obsolescence." Fast Company pushed back on the initial Phonebloks concept, calling it a "pipe dream" and explaining the seemingly contradictory nature of the idea.

"Phonebloks makes an appeal to our love of order and simplicity, while actually being significantly more complex. Phonebloks tells us smartphones can cost less, while making each component within them cost more. Phonebloks says that we can upgrade our smartphones without being wasteful, while making it significantly more likely that we'll have to throw away our phones because they're broken. And so on," the article said.  

Project Ara is a great idea for the kind of folks who regularly build their own PC, but is it right for the everyday consumer? Does the average smartphone owner even want that control?

"To me, it's really obvious, this isn't going to be an average person's phone because they don't want that kind of complexity. But, this is an opportunity for innovation," said Frank Gillett, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Gillett, who has a background in mechanical engineering, also mentioned that going with a modular approach means that the phone will not end up as sleek or modern as consumers have come to expect. It does, however, provide some interesting mix and match opportunities in the future as components get smaller and modular design improves.

Smartphone popularity is only, in part, defined by hardware innovation. It has to be combined with a solid user experience to get consumers on board. When it comes to a modular, do-it-yourself design vs a well-known company like Apple, it is an issue of comfort. Users have an idea of what to expect with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device, but they are typically turned off by having to get acclimated to a device unlike the ones that have had in the past.

With that being said, not many people were using touch screens when the iPhone came out and we all know what happened there. As an indecisive person myself, I can see the potential of consumers being frustrated by too many choices. iPhones and Android devices perform right out of the box, without the consumer having to make decisions.

Of course this illuminates a bigger issue of choice in the U.S. mobile market as American companies struggle to provide phones and service as separate entities. T-Mobile made a recent push to kill contracts, even paying early termination fees for those who jumped ship from their old carriers. It was a bold PR move at CES and has paved the way for customer acquisition, but only time will tell if it translates into a real trend in the U.S. mobile market.

If Google pursues Ara as a real business, not just an innovation opportunity, it could mean we will be able to build our own cell phones before we can customize our data plans.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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