At the recent Google I/O 2014 conference, Google announced several new android and chrome projects and goals, with an emphasis on affordability and wearables. But what stood out was the demo of the first modular phone to come out of Project Ara.
Around the beginning of last year, an organization called PhoneBloks started a campaign to develop modular phones that would reduce waste. The big idea was that phones with changeable components could be repaired and upgraded, and thus last longer. The campaign and kickstarter went viral and were a huge success, but there was, and still is, much skepticism about the feasibility of such technology.
The beauty in modular phone technology is that you can buy upgrades to components of your phone like you can your computer. A popular example is buying a high quality camera for your phone, or swapping your battery out for one that has longer life. Due to this nature, the pricing range of these phones can range from a cheap $50 (default phone from Google with the bare minimum hardware) to perhaps thousands of dollars.
Motorola, owned by Google, conveniently declared that they were designing a modular phone of their own under the name Project Ara, and PhoneBloks reached out to them in a partnership. PhoneBloks hopes to create and provide a community that gives suggestions and feedback to Motorola throughout the development process. This development is remarkably similar to Astroturfing, the practice of hiding the sponsors of a marketing campaign with a “grass roots” organization that saves money and has popularity benefits, and leaves Google suspect.
Below is a clip from the keynote showing the demo of the Project Ara prototype:
The demo didn’t go completely smoothly, but simply showing the boot sequence is a great accomplishment. Presumably they have successfully booted it before, but the device isn’t yet reliable.
The prototype proves the technology, but it doesn’t show if it is possible to create a production quality phone that will function as planned. As such, skeptics remain critical about the potential of this design and its ability to both function and gain enough traction to attract module designers and have an effect on phone waste.
I believe that Google will see this technology through and push it into the market like it has Google Glass, but the reaction to it will likely resemble that of Glass – it’s cool, but will remain in a niche market of developers and reviewers.