Mobile Innovation

Google Fights Planned Obsolescence with Modular Smartphone

ara1blogpostThe common lifecycle for a modern smartphone goes something like this: the company behind the phone, be it Apple, Samsung, HTC, or another manufacturer, announces its latest wares with a laundry list of new and exciting features. Tech analysts immediately latch onto the phones in question as “the next big things” for the mobile industry, while buyers make pre-order purchases or – in the case of Apple especially – line up in front of stores to get their hands on the new devices. Then, after a year or two, it all happens again. The manufacturers think up new ways to make their old products obsolete, the analysts anoint new game-changing electronics, and the buyers trade out their old devices for new ones. It’s a never-ending chain of planned obsolescence.

In recent years, mobile devices have grown more resilient to changing trends, with manufacturers building more durable devices and implementing software and operating system updates to keep everything running like a well oiled machine. Eventually though, hardware breaks down or goes out of date, and when that happens, it’s time for a new phone.

Google Presents Project Ara

Now, however, Google is working on a new modular smartphone concept called Project Ara that could potentially make it possible for mobile users to keep their phones from ever becoming obsolete. Initially developed by Motorola – before it was acquired by Google – Project Ara is a modular smartphone that would allow users to switch out different components of their phones. In essence, Project Ara would allow for something akin to Android’s open source phone updates or add-ons, only those extra building blocks would be for hardware rather than for software.  Users would start with a skeletal smartphone framework, with slots available for various module additions. Those modules could be just about any hardware component, from a new screen to a battery, a camera or a hard drive.

Intriguing Possibilities

The Project Ara model is extremely exciting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it could be the means for completely banishing obsolescence from the smartphone world. There’s a reason Project Ara has been referred to in many circles as “the Forever Phone.” The device would allow users to swap out different pieces of their hardware as they wore down or malfunctioned due to damage. A broken screen or a spent battery would no longer be a reason to buy a completely new device. Instead, it would be more convenient and cost-effective to replace different modules one at a time. Feasibly, users could get by for years at a time on a single Project Ara skeleton.

Furthermore, Project Ara would allow buyers to completely customize their smartphone. No longer would buyers have to weigh different pros and cons between smartphone devices. Instead, they would be able to assemble their “dream phone” from different modules. And if a breakthrough in technology came along and made them want a phone update? It would be as easy as buying a new module and swapping out the old one.

Best of all? Early reports indicate that the project could reach the marketplace by 2015, with a starting price of only $50 for the framework endoskeleton (which would include module slots, a WiFi module, and a battery). Of course, from there, buyers would have to purchase modules individually, from screens and cameras to flash storage drives and cellular modems. For initial purchase, those components could add up in price. However, in the long term, purchasing new modules would almost undoubtedly be cheaper that regularly replacing phones. Now, let’s just see if Google can get the market to buy into their bold new project.