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Is Google crowdsourcing the future of smartphone design with Project Ara?

Google recently made a string of announcements about its Project Ara modular phone system, including a 3D printing option. It may not be a mass market play, but it does have implications.

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Image: Google

Google made news earlier this year when it announced that it was revitalizing the Project Ara modular phone system with a developer kit and conference. The idea behind the project is a phone skeleton with upgradable modules that allow users to pick and choose which features they want to upgrade, without upgrading to a new phone entirely.

A secondary purpose for Project Ara is to reduce the number of phone upgrades so users aren't trapped in traditional carrier upgrade cycles. Recently, Google has been making announcements about progress on the Ara project in an attempt to legitimize the project. Here are the last three announcements:

1. Google announced a Module Developers Kit (MDK) for Ara

2. The modules would attach to the phone via unlockable electro-permanent magnets

3. 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental announced 3D printed modules for Ara will ship next year

For a company known for their innovative "moonshots," Ara is a logical move for Google, but it's still questionable whether it will be able compete in the crowded smartphone market. If we take Google's history with projects like this into account, we can see that they are probably not setting this up as a mass market play.

"What is missing right now, for the vast majority of consumers, is a compelling application," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner.

Google has had a rough time trying to compete in the handset market. Their Nexus phones are widely regarded as some of the best smartphones available, but they haven't been able to capture enough market share to be competitive. In addition to the troubles they have faced with hardware, fragmentation in the Android ecosystem continues to pose problems for Google.

Boris Metodiev, senior analyst at Yankee Group, said that Ara's third-party manufacturing model could further fragment the hardware ecosystem for Android phones, which could worsen Android OS fragmentation overall.

"The fragmentation in the platform is caused, in a way, because of the fragmentation on the hardware. So, when you have different manufacturers building different hardware, different phones, the developers they don't know when they write an app, they don't know for what kind of specs they need to write these apps for," Metodiev said.

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Image: Google

In addition to the problems it poses for Google, Project Ara could prove too much work for potential customers. Consumers don't want the dependability of their smartphone contingent on their skills in putting it together or choosing compatible modules. People have a hard enough time choosing which color iPhone they want to buy.

"Google knows that it will never really develop something completely," Metodiev. "They are throwing the seed there and it is up to the market to decide how they are going to use this thing."

Google's real purpose behind Project Ara is disruption; namely, disruption of the stale hegemony of smartphone design and engineering. This is part of the reason why Google is involving 3D Systems, to engage the maker community and crowdsource smartphone design.

"Today, it's not only a cost-effective way of manufacturing in low volumes, it is also a selling point for consumers. We not only have Ara and the capabilities that Ara provides, but it is really cool because it is 3D printed as well," Basiliere said.

Smartphones have become the most integral piece of technology to our everyday lives. Google wants to give independent innovators and creators a voice in what a smartphone should be and they have the resources to assist in signing over some creative control to users. It also helps reinforce Google's curated reputation as a supporter of open platforms and a company that's on the side of the alpha geeks.

Nevertheless, this move toward disruption puts another nail in the coffin for Ara as a mass market product, as it could grow the discord between Google and carriers. Although some companies, such as T-Mobile, have started to do away with contracts, major US carriers' revenue models are still heavily dependent on contracts and upgrade subsidies.

"I don't think that operators will support it, really, because operators like their cycle of contracts, tying people to contracts — 18 month or 24 month contracts — and subsidizing the handsets they are getting from the vendors," Metodiev said. Adding, "And if the operators, the mobile carriers, if they don't support devices like that, I don't really think that they will go much further."

Most wireless operators realize the control they have over their customers and they rue the day that control is handed over to regular consumers. In a way, if Ara generates enough interest, it could end up further disrupting the smartphone service model as well. Handset upgrades are one of the few benefits of signing a contract with a provider, and an innovation like Ara giving users the option to forgo traditional upgrades, could force the hand of carriers in providing more options for smartphone customers.

At this point, we still don't even have a working prototype of Ara and, for all intents and purposes, it should still be considered a moonshot. Project Ara is a way for Google to prove that it stills value innovation and creativity, it is a way for Google to reconnect with, and maintain, its core group of uber geek supporters.

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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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