From Wi-Fi balloons to self-driving cars and its famously free and healthy staff meals, Google is known for doing things differently. Now it’s looking to change the way smartphones are manufactured and bought, creating a scalable consumer smartphone with fully customizable hardware.
The tech giant stepped up the development of Project Ara on Wednesday, announcing a market trial of its modular smartphone to begin in Puerto Rico later this year with a global launch soon after. Google also unveiled a new prototype of the Ara, given the name “Spiral 2”, with the yet more sophisticated Spiral 3 set to be released later in the year.
Created by Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) group — formerly part of the now-offloaded Motorola hardware division — the Ara is not like anything consumers are used to. Essentially, it’s just a shell — an “endoskeleton” — into which various modules of hardware can be inserted and connected.
These could include anything from a battery, processor, your ideal camera and speakers, a beefed-up storage card, or a replacement screen for the one you just accidentally broke. Modules of varying sizes slide and in and out of the frame, while the exterior panels — also customizable using the Ara Configurator app — create a striking aesthetic.
Previously it had been reported Google would sell the basic endoskeleton for $50. Smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple traditionally center production around flagship models — such as the Galaxy and iPhone, respectively — with customers upgrading their device with new releases.
The Ara looks to do away with the upgrade cycle completely, with owners able to add brand new modules to the original endoskeleton as they come onto the market. Part of the philosophy behind the approach is to reduce electronic waste. However, questions remain as to whether Google will need to release upgrades of the endoskeleton itself, resulting in the modules having to be upgraded too.
Yet perhaps the biggest quirk in the Ara’s unique approach is that Google is outsourcing the manufacture of the phone’s key hardware parts to anyone willing and able to make them. Thanks to big data, consumers are increasingly getting used to personalization and customization when they engage with products and brands.
But Google’s pitch to break the status quo in smartphone manufacturing is still a big risk. For starters, no one’s really done this before — at least not on such a scale. And secondly, do consumers really want what Google is offering?