Google Ara: Future of the smartphone vs. smoke and mirrors

Google Ara is a concept smartphone that allows users to combine different hardware modules. Is this the future smartphone that will soon be ubiquitous, or is the Ara just smoke and mirrors?

 Image: ZDNet

Google recently announced its Project Ara smartphone development kit, continuing a line of announcements started in 2013 that aim to culminate in a modular smartphone. If all goes according to plan, you'll purchase a chassis in one of three sizes, then add modules that range from the mundane in the form of batteries and radios, to the extreme end, which includes anything from a blood sugar reader to a cigarette lighter.

While the market for chain smoking diabetics lusting to integrate the tools of these diverse "trades" into their smartphones may be relatively narrow, the ability to change phone configurations or upgrade components has more obvious appeal. If I'm going on a business trip, I might abandon my camera module for an additional battery module, or slip the "brain" module from a clunky corporate phone into a streamlined handset for the weekend. Furthermore, rather than replacing my phone with an entirely new device every few years, I could presumably upgrade a couple of key components for less money than replacing a phone.

The ultimate enterprise smartphone?

For enterprises in particular, Ara seems intriguing. Many of the concerns and risks around Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs center on the mixing of personal and corporate information on the same device. With interchangeable modules, an Ara phone might be able to support a personal "brain" consisting of memory, processing, and storage functions, and a corporate "brain," each housed in the same chassis and potentially sharing rudimentary functions like battery and radios. Should a user misplace their phone or leave the company, the corporate "brain" can be wiped without affecting any personal data, since the two parts are physically segregated.

All manner of other interesting enterprise functions could be concocted with swappable modules. For high-security environments, users could check their camera module at the door while inside the facility, or perhaps add an access key module that would open doors or provide secure authentication to corporate systems.

Marketing or technical concept

With any new technology, it's always difficult to tell whether it's marketing superlatives and a few "conceptual" images or a real product that one can buy in a matter of months. With Ara, my sense is that it's more of the latter.

One of the main features the initial Ara announcements touts is end-user upgradability. Rather than purchasing a new phone every few years, a user could theoretically swap out a processor module for a more capable unit at less cost than a new phone. The problem I see with this concept is that a similar concept has long existed with desktop computers and, to a lesser extent, laptops. Users could long upgrade processors or memory for less cost than an entirely new computer, but most users forgo this option in favor of an entirely new device. Often a processor or memory upgrade has limited impact due to changes in underlying hardware. If you've ever built your own desktop, you've likely experienced this phenomenon: you start planning a simple upgrade, discover that the "simple" upgrade requires another component be upgraded, which in turn necessitates another upgrade, until you're effectively building a new machine. When each generation of smartphones brings better screens, faster processors, and more memory, I can't see a huge demand for piecemeal upgrades of any component.

The enterprise angle discussed may be intriguing to IT managers, but with companies like Google paying attention to consumers first and enterprises a distant second, some of the enterprise benefits presumably have little impact on a company that also just sold its mobile phone manufacturing business.

So what's Google up to?

Many of these "conceptual" announcements do three very important things for a company. First of all, they gauge interest in a particular concept or concepts. The auto industry in particular does a great job of announcing concept cars that push current engineering and design to the max, allowing consumers and analysts to dissect the most extreme example of the future and provide feedback that rationalizes and normalizes the design. Secondly, concepts provide market testing for an idea. Perhaps Google really does have a nearly-baked smartphone concept and will test the waters with Ara to determine if it's worth developing and producing or licensing.

The third angle to the announcement, and the one that I feel is most likely, is that Ara has nothing to do with new smartphone hardware at all, but rather is a sneaky way of asking designers, engineers, and consumers what functions they would combine into a mobile device without the constraints of the modern smartphone. If some large percentage of consumers start building Ara devices with a bottle opener, this tells Google the phone may become more of a physical tool. If the majority of designers incorporate fitness and medical sensors, this tells Google the market is demanding more applications in these areas.

With Ara, Google has effectively provided the market with a blank slate on the future smartphone. Watching what the market does with that blank slate answers some very interesting questions if you just happen to make the world's leading smartphone operating system, and are looking to beat a highly competitive market to the next big thing.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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