A couple of days back, we learned that Google plans to release the developer version of Project Ara smartphone, later this year, and the consumer version sometime next year. However, the first-gen Project Ara smartphone is likely to disappoint those who had really been looking forward to it. The whole concept behind Project Ara was to build a smartphone that won’t die, but with the essential components such as the display, processor and RAM to be baked into the frame, the first-gen smartphone will have limited modular functionality.
Speaking to The Verge, Google detailed the project to clarify on what one could expect from the initial Project Ara smartphone, and it could surely disappoint a lot of users. With proper modular functionality, one could easily swap out the HD display and replace with a full HD or QHD one. Users could also add more RAM, upgrade to a new processor and more. However, all this won’t be possible with the initial Project Ara smartphone. This also means that the Project Ara smartphone will become obsolete when manufacturers release a new processor.
The Project Ara smartphone will ship with six slots for modules, and if you use two double-sized modules, you’ll be left with only four slots. All modules will have same type of connectors and they will be controlled using software. In case you want to remove a module, you’ll need to say ‘OK Google, eject the camera.’ This will ensure that the modules don’t fall off easily.
Now, as you won’t be able to replace key components, all you can add is a better camera with higher resolution, an additional speaker, bigger battery, more storage and a secondary display at the back. However, most of this already exists – we have microSD card slots for external storage, add on battery packs and removable batteries. In fact, the recently launched LG G5 is a modular smartphone that allows you to add an additional battery, camera grip, a Hi-Fi speaker and more. However, there is no option to upgrade the display, processor and RAM.
The company also mentioned that it will be embracing the idea of a true ‘Google Phone,’ and it ensure that, Google will have complete control over modules made by others. In fact, third-parties will need to get their modules approved from Google. Once approved, these modules will be given a Google code to allow them interact with an Ara phone. Moreover, Google will also be taking a ‘small cut’ on sale of each module, which will be sold directly through Google. This also means that Ara modules won’t be available via ‘grey market.’
However, despite all these caveats, Google still claims that Project Ara will be an ‘open platform’ which will allow anyone to build modules. The company also says that it will support developers and manufacturers in making these modules. That’s not all; Google also mentioned that it will be looking into ‘innovation on form factors’ which could hint that the modules may be used in a wide range of other electronic devices too.
Why Google wants control over module ecosystem?
Android is an open source operating system, which allows OEMs to tweak the OS for their respective smartphones. To differentiate their smartphones from the competition, manufacturers add a layer of customization over the stock OS. However, these customizations slow down the software upgrade process. In some cases, by the time manufacturers release the software update, Google unveils the next iteration, whereas in other cases, most smartphones aren’t treated with the latest OS.
Android device fragmentation is another problem that Google has to face. If we look at most manufacturers, they release two or three variants of smartphones each running on slight hardware modifications. And as software for each device needs to be slightly fine tuned, it further delays the upgrade process. Also, in most cases, users get poor experience on some smartphones, where the device tends to slow down, eventually. By having complete control over the module and hardware process, Google may be aiming to offer users with a smooth experience throughout.
Although, now the Project Ara modular smartphone doesn’t sound as exciting as before, it will be interesting to see how Google can pull this off when the developer and consumer version is released.