Last week, Reuters reported the suspension (read “cancellation”) of Google’s plans for a modular smartphone, also known as Project Ara. The project has kept the tech world abuzz for years with the promise of being able to update individual phone components.
On the surface, the value proposition of a modular smartphone is tempting – hardware ages fast, and most users replace their phones more often than their shoes. Swapping just the dated piece of hardware or modifying the phone on the fly to fit a specific purpose, such as advanced photography, instead of buying a new phone or another device makes a lot of sense.
Despite the “what if we could” excitement, the modular phone was never meant to be. Although it may still find use in a niche application, there are a few fundamental reasons that prevented it from becoming a mainstream product:
- Hardware bulk
- Subpar performance
- Susceptibility to technological obsolescence
- It’s just not sexy!
The modular phone has two basic elements – a frame and components that fit into the frame. The frame has to be strong and sturdy enough to support the rest of the phone. Individual components must be shaped to fit their intended places, encased in protective shells and fitted with connectors. Together, these elements – absent in traditional “integrated” phones – add bulk and a lot of it. The resulting device is a gargantuan installation by the standards of today’s feather-light paper-thin devices. Just think of the “body-on-frame” cars of old.
Modern gadgets are designed to optimize device performance by strategically arranging components within it. In modular devices, greater distances between components and connectors/adapters required by interchangeable parts negatively impact device performance. The resulting phone would lag behind its non-modular peers fitted with identical hardware. Furthermore, occasional glitches due to added connectivity and overall complexity are unavoidable.
Susceptibility to technological obsolescence
Technology evolves at a breathtaking pace. Gone are the Apple 30-pin port and the Type-B USB plug. Gone are the countless things from “under-the-hood” of devices. The modular phone, despite its promise, wouldn’t be immune to such changes either. Sooner or later, evolution of technology will render the key parts of the phone obsolete, and the phone chassis would have to be replaced along with all parts that are already mounted on it. The lifecycle of the modular package would undoubtedly exceed the lifecycle of a typical device, but not by enough to make a difference. Backers of the modularity would try addressing the issue by providing backward-compatibility for new hardware. However, as history shows, backward-compatibility is spotty and only exacerbates the inherent performance issues of modularity.
The cost of designing and producing modular phones exceeds that of non-modular. The bulky, sluggish, yet costly phone offers a remarkably bad value for the consumer.
To compound the problem, modifications to the modular phone are pricey. The cost of buying components individually is higher than the cost of buying the complete package (i.e. a phone). The modular phone with its custom replacement parts would end up costing a small fortune while delivering sub-par performance as compared to fully-integrated devices.
Finally, the modular phone is just not sexy
It is a John Deere of phones – the tractor capable of plowing snow and digging a hole, but lacking the desirability of a sports car. The industrial look-and-feel of the modular phone is not a match for the slick curves of an integrated device.
Google has made a good attempt with Ara. It is a nifty test bed of up and coming technologies. It is a good research experiment. But the project was taken too far by the press and the tech world alike – it offered a glimmer of hope of becoming a mainstream technology and set the expectations. By design, the idea of commercially-viable modular phones was simply never meant to be, and it was just a matter of time before all grown-up and monetization-conscious Google pulled the plug on it.