The first Project Ara smartphone was supposed to arrive this year, but the team announced that there have been some significant changes to the platform, and the launch has been delayed for 2016.
Recently, the Project Ara team said on Twitter that the platform won't launch in Puerto Rico anymore, as originally planned. Instead, the group is looking to launch the first Ara products in the United States.
The team also seems to have taken some steps to overhaul how the platform works. For starters, the electro-permanent magnets have been removed from the platform. Previously, these were used to hold the modules stuck to Ara's endoskeleton. However, according to Google engineers, they just weren't strong enough to survive drop tests. They now seem to be "testing a signature experience to attach/detach modules," which may put the modules in more fixed "docks" that don't let them detach so easily.
Another interesting change made to the platform is that Ara is becoming a little less modular, and the group seems to want to stick more components together in the same module in order to save space. This is an approach other modular device companies have taken as well, although Ara will likely still maintain the most modular platform of them all, as high modularity has been its main promise from the beginning.
Chances Of success
Project Ara, or the idea of making a completely modular smartphone, has always been a highly ambitious one, with little chance of success. At least the strategy sounds right; as any market matures and saturates, the trend is almost always towards increased customization. Products go from having multiple color options, to a wider variety of SKUs, to decoupling the internals as much as possible to increase production efficiency.
The efficiency is usually obtained by allowing other companies to specialize on a given component and make a higher quality one for a lower price than the original integrated company could have ever made. This is why the idea of a modular smartphone seems like a good one, in concordance with business successes in the past.
The much harder part about this modular strategy is the execution, especially if it's done too early to be technically possible or for the market to accept it. A modular device needs not only to work well enough as a smartphone, but it also needs to be as competitive as possible with the more integrated standard smartphones.
Modular devices are going to be better in some areas than traditional smartphones, such as being less expensive over the long run to own, as you can just replace a needed component, and it allows for a wider variety of user-controlled customizations.
They are also going to be worse in other areas. The batteries may end up with lower capacity because of a lack of space, or the devices could be significantly thicker than current high-end smartphones. The speed of the information transferring between the components could also take a hit, which could reduce performance and increase latency, but whether this will be felt in normal usage by Ara customers remains to be seen.
The Project Ara team's job is to ensure the advantages are as compelling as possible compared to traditional smartphones (with a wide availability of quality modules from day one, for instance) while also minimizing whatever drawbacks a modular platform might have.
Announcing Too Early
The biggest fear surrounding Project Ara is that it could end up like another Google Glass. Many think that what was really wrong with Google Glass was that it was announced too early, before it was ready for the mass market, and before it was a practical and useful product. Design-wise, the device doesn't look particularly attractive, and the battery life is too short to be truly usable.
It could be years before Google Glass could be turned into an appealing product for the masses, and that's only if it survives whatever skunkworks rebirth Google has planned.
Google may have made the same mistake with Project Ara, which clearly has a multitude of technical challenges that are left unsolved. It appears that the company may not have anticipated some of those challenges. Imagine, for instance, if the iPhone was announced in 2005 in a much more unfinished state, in its early days of development, instead of six months before being launched in 2007.
One advantage of unveiling it early, though, is that the company gets more feedback about it than it would have gotten otherwise (a strategy which Steve Jobs clearly didn't believe was worth it). Also, because Ara is essentially a multi-partner product, it can cooperate more openly with other companies and increase the availability of modules for the 2016 launch.
However, if some other unexpected problems arise in 2016, and the launch is delayed for yet another year, those who may have been excited about it back in 2014 may already lose interest by then. That's why Google needs to get Project Ara right this time, as it may not get another chance.