There was a brief period in the history of the mobile phone in which customization was everything. Custom ringtones and backgrounds were the norm, and Nokia’s customizable phone cases were quite the statement - everyone had one, and I considered my lightning case to be a thing of beauty. Today, though, most are comfortable with the look, feel and sound of their iPhone or their Galaxy S7. Cases are common, but are more functional than fashionable and a custom ring or text tone is more likely to raise eyebrows on the train than the standard jingle.
It is into this difficult market that Google is attempting to (finally) roll out its long-awaited Project Ara. The modular smartphone allows users to adapt, upgrade and entirely personalize their smartphone, from the quality of the camera to the longevity of the battery life, all with detachable panels - the back of the phone has six for the customer to fill and switch around as they please. The idea, at its genesis, was of a phone that could be upgraded and augmented rather than replaced after the standard two-year life cycle. It’s quite something, and the ability to reconfigure a phone and tailor it for different activities does stir the imagination, particularly as the design of the phone reaches ‘attractive.’
Google has been forced to rethink the project, though, opting to keep the phone’s display and processor as standard with only the back of the phone open to customization, where originally everything was intended to be upgradable. Ian Fogg, from consultancy IHS Technology, told the BBC: 'A fully modular smartphone would have gone against every trend in the industry to integrate components tightly together and make smaller, faster devices as a result. By putting the front display, the processors and some of the core functionality into the frame's board, rather than on removable modules, it has significantly de-risked the project.’
This isn’t really the point, though. Some are scathing of Google’s efforts, which clearly come from an innovative place but have, as with so many fantastic ideas on paper, been somewhat thwarted by reality. People stopped upgrading PCs about a decade ago, and the hype that follows any hints of a new design from Apple speaks volumes about the modern consumer’s hunger for a fresh looking, new product. The fact that the core of Ara will need replacing anyway, after a small numbers of years, betrays the notion of a sustainable, repairable smartphone.
And at I/O 2016, the loudest cheer for Ara came when voice command was used to eject the camera from the back of a prototype. ‘OK Google, eject the camera’ was greeted with rambunctious applause, but these functionalities feel somewhat gimmicky. I, for one, cannot see myself commanding my phone to disassemble itself every morning as I plan which functionality I deem important for that day. This decision-making element is problematic, and in many ways condemns Ara to a very niche audience, with many bound to prefer common functionality over specific customization.
The original inspiration for the idea seems to have come from Phonebloks, whose dream for modular smartphones is one of sustainability and longevity. This doesn’t seem to be what Google are striving for, though. The company have barely mentioned longevity and are pushing the customization angle over one of reduced-waste. For an ethical, sustainable phone, customers should consider Fairphone - the android smartphone is available now for an admittedly expensive €525, but promises both ethical sourcing of all materials and straightforward repairability.
Google’s Ara is impressive. The fact that modules can be removed and replaced whilst the phone is on does allow the user freedom, and the more technologically-minded consumer will no doubt be enthralled by the possibilities. According to Techcrunch, though, lead Ara engineer Rafa Camargo himself confessed that their studies had found that users valued reliability and consistency above all else in a phone. Reliability and consistency are not at all what Ara stands for. Quite the opposite.