Why Google’s Project Ara Never Got Off The Ground

Modular smartphones are impressive, but only in theory


After years of creating prototypes, generating hype, and ironing out teething problems, Google is pulling the plug on its long-awaited Project Ara. The tech giant has been putting together its modular smartphone largely under strict secrecy rules, and very little was known about the progress of the project before this year’s I/O conference, which took place in May.

After a year of silence, the conference saw Google demonstrate (successfully, this time) that modules, like a camera, can be attached to one of six slots and used immediately. The technology was met with raucous applause by the audience at I/O, which is largely made up of developers and tech entrepreneurs - the kind of person excited by voice-activated ejection of a camera or a battery pack.

And this is exactly the problem with the concept. We wrote about Ara back in May with the opinion that, though impressive, the technology was always destined to remain niche. Its appeal was intended to be mass market, a something for everyone project thanks to the customization it offers and the supposed cheapness of keeping one phone for five years or so.

This isn’t what the consumer wants, though. The average smartphone user wants a product with everything they need inbuilt, hence why LG’s fairly slick modular phone has been fully released with relatively little fanfare. LG’s offers less customization than Ara but its modest sales have, in a sense, proven that users want everything they need available on their phone, as and when they need it.

The Next Web highlights the issue of buying a new camera for your Ara: ‘it’s a slippery slope.’ A new camera may need a new processor to run it smoothly, and the screen may not eventually be good enough to do the images justice - before you know it, that’s three upgrades needed to feel the full effect of one, and upgrading these elements alongside the camera would be so costly the user would consider simply buying a new smartphone. Hardware issues are complex enough before software is even taken into account, and the product’s been shelved just a year before its consumer model was tipped to be released.

A company taking a slightly different tact is Fairphone, whose smartphones can boast being both modular and ethical. Rather than encouraging developers to create gimmicky add-ons to an existing phone, Fairphone source their material themselves and have produced a phone to last, rather than to dazzle. Reasonably priced, ethically sourced parts can be bought and attached with ease - everything from the screen to the battery - and the phone, comically, runs on Android. Fairphone negates the issue of gimmicky choice; the parts are all there and, should they need to be replaced, they can be with ease. Ara offered something very different, and failed to exploit the ethical implications of building a phone to last.

Ara’s suspension is ‘part of a broader push to streamline the company’s hardware efforts,’ according to The Guardian. The technology created may be eventually brought to market by partners in the future, if Google can arrange licensing agreements, but the buzz generated around an Android Ara device seems to have all but dissipated. The failed experiment found that modular smartphones were bulky, needlessly complex, as well as expensive to produce and, unfortunately, no amount of slick videos demonstrating the level of customization can change that.

The project also hit snags along the way that were specific to Ara, too. For one, the projects head engineer, Paul Eremenko, was poached by Airbus in June 2015 when Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) decided it needed to bring in fresh blood.

This all led to the company having to pull its Puerto Rico market pilot in August 2015, when Google underwent huge organizational changes to create its parent company, Alphabet. This pushed the project back significantly, at a time when Ara had been given special allowances by ATAP - ordinarily, a project has two years to become a viable business or the plug is pulled. And so it seems the time is up for the team attempting to make a remarkably complex idea a reality. So long, Ara, a product always better in the minds of tech enthusiasts than in reality. 

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