Skip to main content

Where Are You Going, Project Ara? (Opinion)

Over the last couple of days, the Project Ara Twitter feed has suddenly come to life, as the PR team attached to the project has been trying to keep the world informed of what's happening with the ambitious modular smartphone project. Couched in upbeat, humorous language, the feed has spit out some news that has Ara fans puzzled and concerned. Didn't we just see a fully functioning prototype at Google I/O? What's going on?

Red Flags Waving

As we wrote yesterday, there are several bits of news that have come through that throw up some red flags. In summary:

-Project Ara will no longer use electropermanent magnets to keep the modules attached to the endo-More intelligence is being moved to the core module-The 2015 Puerto Rico pilot project has been scrapped, and a new one somewhere in the U.S. is being planned in its place-The release date for the final consumer version of the phone has been pushed back to sometime in 2016

Magnets, Core Module, Cancelled Plans

We should note at this point that the "failed drop test" hashtag from @ProjectAra, which we and many others wrote about, was meant to be a joke. However, in context, the hashtag accompanied the statement that Ara was moving on from using electropermanent magnets and looking at a "signature experience to attach/detach modules." According to a Google representative, that will include some combination of hardware and software.

Joke or not, it's alarming that the Ara team is suddenly throwing out the way the modules attach to the endo. We were told that the decision was made because the team felt that a solution that consumed less power was preferable, but it's awfully late in the game to be calling such an audible, isn't it?

The decision to move some more intelligence onto the core module is quizzical, too, and frankly more of a dramatic statement. The core module already resembled an SoC; even if that's a space-saving measure, as the tweets suggested, that cuts against the whole point of Project Ara. There was a basic SoC, but the rest of the device's functionality was going to rely on plugged-in modules. If more of that functionality gets baked into the SoC, then...what's special about Ara compared to every other handset out there?

In its tweets, Project Ara also promised better battery life and a better camera. Why it's promising these things is odd, because it would seem that its module maker partners would be the ones in charge of those improvements. (Perhaps the Ara team is making its own modules. Or maybe we're just reading too much into the tweets.)

Of secondary concern is that these changes could seriously affect module makers. There aren't that many companies we're aware of that are even attempting to make Project Ara modules, and major bumps in the road for the endo's design could mean trouble for those few in development.

With these hardware changes suddenly afoot, it's no wonder that the Puerto Rico pilot was cancelled. But that's just it -- it's not good news that the Ara team is making such dramatic changes that are fundamental to the handset instead of launching a pilot program. At this stage, the group should be putting some finishing touches on the design and build, not rethinking them entirely.

Assurances

A pessimist would be screaming "Vaporware!" at this juncture, but there are reasons for optimism, too. It's unfortunate that Puerto Rico won't pan out, but a Google rep told me that a U.S. pilot is definitely in the works for 2016, pending the selection of a location. (The criteria for selecting a location is not something Google is sharing at this time.)

I was also told that, "We're working closely with module developers to communicate any changes and how that will affect development timelines. We are not aware of any partners that will have to scrap their module plans because of the changes in architecture." 

The rep added, "We're confident that we're on the right track and working towards a launch in 2016" and noted that the Ara team is heads-down and hard at work to bring Ara to the people.

It's hard to tell from our limited interactions with those working Project Ara, but either there's a very brave front being put on, or the group truly isn't drenched in flopsweat. Optimism from the Ara camp may not equate to optimism for those of us on the outside, but maybe it's reason to stave off our pessimism. Maybe. 

MORE:

Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter @SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.