There’s two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the modular smartphone idea. The first is that it’s the way phones were meant to be made, giving users the ability to customize every aspect of their device and reducing e-waste at the same time. The other flips that idea on its head, stating that the idea is infeasible due to the limitations inherent in a modular platform and reliance on manufacturers to build components specifically for the platform. Since I tend towards the latter I thought that Project Ara, Google’s (nee Motorola’s) attempt at the idea, would likely never see the light of day but as it turns out the platform is very real and they even have a working prototype.
The essence of the idea hasn’t changed much since Motorola first talked about it at the end of last year, being a more restrained version of the Phonebloks idea. The layout is the same as the original design prototypes, giving you space on the back of the unit for about 7 modular units and space on the front for a large screen and a speaker attachment. However they also showed off a new, slim version which has space for fewer modules but is a much sleeker unit overall. Google also mentioned that they were working on a phablet design as well which was interesting considering that the current prototype unit was looking to be almost phablet sized. The whole unit, dubbed Spiral 1, was fully functional including module removal and swapping so the idea has definitely come a long way since it’s initial inception late last year.
There are a few things that stand out about the device in its current form, primarily the way in which some of the blocks don’t conform to the same dimensions as other ones. Most notably you can see this with the blood oxygen sensor they have sticking out of the top however you’ll also notice that the battery module is about twice the height of anything else. This highlights one of the bigger issues with modular design as much of the heft in modern phones is due to the increasingly large batteries they carry with them. The limited space of the modular blocks means that either the batteries have significantly reduced capacity or have to be bigger than the other modules, neither of which is a particularly desirable attribute.
In fact the more the I think about Project Ara the more I feel it’s oriented towards those looking to develop hardware for mobile platforms than it is for actual phone users. Being able to develop your specific functionality without having to worry about the rest of the platform frees up a significant amount of time which can then be spent on getting said functionality into other phones. In that regards Project Ara is amazing however that same flexibility is likely what will turn many consumers off such a device. Sure, having a phone tailored to your exact specifications has a certain allure, but I can’t help but feel that that market is vanishingly small.
It will be interesting to see how the Project Ara platform progresses as they have hinted that there’s a much better prototype floating around (called Spiral 2) which they’re looking to release to hardware developers in the near future. Whilst having a proof of concept is great there’s still a lot of questions around module development, available functionality and, above all, the usability of the system when its complete. It’s looking like a full consumer version likely isn’t due out until late next year or early 2016 so we’re going to have to wait a while to see what the fully fledged modular smartphone will look like.