Project Ara

Some months ago, Google killed Project Ara, an ambitious venture to create a modular smartphone featuring upgradeable components. And when I say ambitious, boy was it a moon shot.^

It’s one thing to upgrade components in a desktop computer or a car, but the smaller the device, the trickier it is to engineer efficient connections between components whose bandwidth requirements and standards of communication vary wildly. Even notebook manufacturers struggle with this limitation as they attempt to engineer ever-thinner devices.

As a result, Project Ara phones turned out a bit on the bulky side and looked like the phone would disassemble if dropped. Regarding this second caveat, don’t get me wrong: dissipating impact energy by falling apart isn’t necessarily bad. Nokia was an expert in this “method”. Its bulky phones could withstand countless drops. But at least for now it’s difficult to get the best of both worlds.

The idea behind Project Ara was good, the timing was not. Our technologies are a bit too scattered right now for this to properly work. There are different manufacturers for each phone component and countless standards in place. Building a prototype was easy (with Google’s money), but getting all those manufacturers in the same boat and getting a good selection of upgradeable components in shops around the world is a daunting logistical challenge. However, the largest obstacle was undoubtedly the fact that…

There is little customer interest in such a project. Who wants to carry around a phone that has 20% extra weight and size only so that they can upgrade a component or two once a year? Some people maybe will, but we live in a world where those that could afford or have interest in upgrading phone components will most probably choose to buy a new phone altogether.

Kudos goes to Google for making the attempt and opening the way. We still have a lot to learn regarding miniaturization, standards and logistics. I think we’ll see something like Project Ara come back sometime in the coming decades. For now, looks like we’re stuck with Samsung and Apple and their consumerist phones for which one can’t even replace the battery (not really, there are plenty of brands that allow this; it’s a pity people don’t press this requirement and instead let themselves fall prey to planned obsolescence).

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