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Project Ara Update: No More Magnets, No Puerto Rico, But It's Coming In 2016 (Maybe)

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.

Changes

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.

Compromises

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.

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Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • alidan
    batteries may not be bog enough? than make it the size of a AA and bulk it out a bit, see with aria i get to chose what i want, and if i want a good battery and dont care about how it looks, i get to make that call, not some executive who wants to race to be a credit card.

    i already hate smartphones and phones, they have no bulk and feel like crap to hold up to your ear.
    Reply
  • drtweak
    ^^^ Agreed. One reason I always went with phomes like Motorola Droid X, Razr Maxx HD, and the Turbo. They feel heavy and big. GF has a S6 and I cant stand holding it. I feel like i will break it. I dont want thin and light i want thicker and heavy. Been following this since waaay back in the day and i like how it is coming along. And if battery life is an issue then combine modules like they said and leave room to add a second battery.
    Reply
  • Aragorn
    A Project Ara customer could carry as many batteries as the customer wants to and they should be far easier to switch (no need to open up your phone).
    Reply
  • pervbear
    A Project Ara customer could carry as many batteries as the customer wants to and they should be far easier to switch (no need to open up your phone).

    For most that would only be acceptable if one of 2 things were to happen an instant on type feature like you press a button it save states and you swap or the device has 30-60 seconds of life when you remove battery to replace.
    Reply
  • Aragorn
    A very good paint (not that I mind too much if I have to wait 30 seconds to power the phone back up) but building capacitor power for that should be possible.
    Reply
  • ara _will_ have a little battery included that enables the user to hot swap batteries. at least until they slash that feature as well.
    Reply
  • kittle
    Ditto on the battery life part. If I want a big battery, I'll shell out the $$ for it and deal with the looks. my phone is not a fashion statement -- its a tool.

    Others will see it different, so give them the the option of a slim and light battery.

    Give both types their preferred options and you will get $$ from both types.


    but im really bothered by this part
    -- 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.

    Sounds like the modular phone is becoming a lot LESS modular which rather defeats the purpose.. in that case I will keep my $$
    Reply
  • scolaner
    I've been bugging Project Ara on Twitter (seems to be the main point of contact for the group at present, unfortunately) for more details. You know, sometimes products are delayed...it happens. But this smells bad to me. I'm concerned that they're chasing their tails at this point.

    They had a "working prototype" over a year ago. They're *just now* figuring out that the drop tests aren't up to snuff? They're going back to the drawing board on the technology that *connects the modules together*? They're moving around the intelligence from modules to cores?

    That's really bad news. They're not tweaking the final design, they're rethinking core, fundamental aspects of the device.
    Reply