Project Ara's Six ErrorsJunko Yoshida
9/2/2016 00:00 AM EDT
So, Alphabet has pulled the plug on Project Ara. An Ara phone would not be coming to market.
The goal of the project was to enable anyone to design a totally customizable phone. Call it a Lego phone, a modular phone or a DYI phone. Whatever, it didn’t catch on.
The project generated some buzz and created intrigue. But it also perplexed industry observers and left them deeply skeptical.
I was among the doubters from the get-go. I couldn’t really figure out Project Ara’s demographic, as I outlined it in my blog in 2014 entitled "Google’s Project Ara: Who Are Real Targets?"
But I’m not here to say “I told you so.” Seriously!
Actually, I was secretly hoping that Google would prove me wrong.
That’s probably because I am naïve and liberal, and I often fall for the utopian notion of a “level playing field” for everyone.
If you recall, Project Ara was meant to foster an open hardware community around a modular Android smartphone platform. As described by Google in its blog post
, the project was "for hardware what the Android platform has done for software.”
So what went wrong?
Google is mum about why it killed the project.
that cancelling Project Ara is “one of the first steps in a campaign to unify Google’s various hardware efforts,” ranging from Chromebook laptops to Nexus phones. The same story mentioned that former Motorola president Rick Osterloh rejoined Google earlier this year to oversee [Google’s hardware] effort. Google sold Motorola Mobility to Lenovo Group in 2014. Six errors
But aside from shift in a corporate direction and personnel changes at Google, what exactly failed here?
Was it that the idea of an open hardware community didn’t fly? Was it that the very concept of a “modular” phone was cock-eyed? Or did Google just totally misjudge smartphone users?
I pinged Keven Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, because I saw early Friday morning his tweet, in which he called Project Ara “was a STUPID idea.”
Krewell reminded me that he’s been consistently critical of Project Ara, because “it goes against the trend of the industry and is the opposite of everything we need to do to make less expensive smartphones.”
What exactly failed in Project Ara? Was it the idea of an open hardware community, the very concept of a "modular" phone, or Google "not getting" smartphone users?
1. “Modular” means complexity
Krewell noted that making a phone modular “adds complexity in manufacturing - each module needs connector to a backbone bus connecting modules. Connectors add cost and increase failure points.”
2. Low cost & high performance
The backbone needs to be future-proof, while it must support “low cost” and “high performance” at the same time. He explained. “This adds a cost burden to low-end designs.”
He further noted, “The backbone needs to be an aluminum structure, which is also adding costs.”
3. Never underestimate testing
Krewell also brought up a crucial word – “testing.” “Replaceable 3rd party modules adds testing and compatibility testing issues.”
4. Smarts are in the SoC
Most of the smarts on the phone are in the SoC, Krewell said. “The leading edge and also low cost are all highly integrated - CPU, GPU, sensor hubs, etc.”
It’s virtually impossible to take advantage of the latest and the greatest advancements of the new SoC in one’s modular phone without affecting the rest of the modules in the handset.
5. Software complexity
Krewell also said, “The software complexity of supporting multiple, replaceable modules makes it more like a PC, with extra drivers required -- not a recipe for lowering cost or making it more reliable.”
6. How it looks is important
If Project Ara was meant to be for consumers, its looks – “thicker and heavier than a modern integrated phone” – is a definite turn-off.
Krewell’s conclusion is that Project Ara “could be used for Maker projects and other research, and low volume projects, but it's not a high volume solution.”
My personal conclusion is that an “open” hardware project is a great idea, but it appears a lot harder than organizing an open software community.
In the end, hardware – in anything as complex as a smartphone – has so many moving parts to cope with. Software could be improved over time with many developers making fixes. But hardware -- however it was put together – must work every time in order to make it useful in the real world.
You can’t keep taking it back into the shop, even if it’s your own shop.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times