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Project Ara: A game changer?

Written by: Miguel Caires

Published on: March 18, 2016

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With the recent ending of the annual Mobile World Congress, there was the usual release of flagship models by phone manufacturers: Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge and Sony Xperia XA, just to name a few...

If, to those, we add the upcoming Nexus 7 and the iPhones 7 and 7 Plus, we get a plethora of devices that are basically hardware updates to last year’s respective iterations.

This is a usual yearly tendency across all manufacturers, as new and better components are made available and at cheaper prices which then get converted into objects of desire to the avid consumers (yours truly included).

The competition for the crown of best smartphone in the market is a fierce one, and it usually revolves around four big players (Apple, Google, Samsung and HTC).

However, these mobile “beasts” can’t be considered cheap, which normally leads the user to a recurring sense of frustration… “So I spent £400+ just a couple of months ago, but my phone is already outdated” or “My phone is working fine, but that new model is just to die for!” are common thoughts if you’re a tech geek and/or always like to own the latest trendy device.

Sometimes, bugs even tend to “miraculously” appear as new models come out, almost as if you were psychologically preparing yourself to spend more money on a shiny new gadget.

That’s where something like Google’s Project Ara could come in…

Imagine a world where instead of having to buy a whole new device every single year, you could just buy a specific component upgrade…

Think your camera is outdated? Fine, buy a new one and attach it to your phone. Awesome new pictures sorted!

Screen shattered? Fear not! No need to send the entire phone for repair. Just buy a replacement part and snap it on.

Need a better battery? Bigger storage? Faster processor? A funky module that enables night vision on your phone? All of this will apparently be possible if Ara is successful.

It sounds like a fairy tale and, to some extent, it is. I’m guessing the adoption rate will depend on how reliable, fast, and smooth the user experience will be. Do we need to switch off the phone to replace modules? Will we have to upgrade the firmware when new components come out? What will the price range be? How durable are the components? Will it look premium or will it have that plastic feeling?

Not long ago, there was this big buzz about Glass and its potential, but after not too long the project was back to the drawing board.

For wanting to get the project right from the start, the initial 2015 release date was postponed, as Google’s engineers found that phone had very low resistance to close encounters with the floor, as stated in this tweet. Apparently a new proprietary technology is being designed to mitigate that problem, pushing the public launch to sometime in 2016.

In my opinion Google does take the lead as it has the full stack (hardware + software development) but, even if Ara goes down the drain, modular phones are a thing as new manufacturers are appearing in the market, like PuzzlePhone. Vsenn, a Finnish company which was mainly composed by former Nokia engineers was also on the brink of releasing a device to public but, just before launch, decided to license its technology to an undisclosed company (wonder who it might be?).

Finally, we also need to consider the big players. If this takes off, there’s no doubt that HTC, Sony and Samsung will want to have their say in the market, as they’re doing now with VR.
LG, trying to get some market share as well, has recently announced the G5,which is the first step to a truly modular phone, as you can already swap some components in the device (they’re referred to as Friends?!).

What the future will bring for mobile, no one can say… But I’m pretty sure the paradigm is going to change as it did a few years ago with the introduction of the touchscreen.

Exciting days ahead!