AH Primetime: Google’s Project Ara Will Drive Innovation

January 23, 2015 - Written By David Steele

I will admit that the potential unleashed by Google’s modular smartphone Project Ara has kept me awake at night. The project has such huge potential that it’s difficult for me not to feel excited even though Ara is still some months away. Let me take a moment to explain why Ara is so exciting and could be a major disruption on the industry that many of us have come to love (and loathe) at the same time.

Currently, new smartphones are typically introduced on an annual basis. Yes, Sony drops a new flagship every six months and yes, sometimes the manufacturers will extend or compress the release cycle, but for the most part, if you bought a 2014 flagship at launch last year, you’ll be able to buy its 2015 replacement around and about the same time this year. And you can bet that the 2015 flagship will come with advertising that subtly, or in the case of Apple pushes it in your face, tells you that your old ‘phone is no nowhere near the best and therefore you should upgrade before your friends start pointing and laughing. Because of this regular upgrade cycle, the industry is compelled to release products into something of an established timescale: if a better or more suitable product is released a few months after you bought your flagship, you have to wait until the following year.

I’ll use the 2013 Samsung flagship, Galaxy S4, as an example of this. The Galaxy S4 was released with a 1.9 GHz, quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor. When it was released, this was the finest Qualcomm processor available. But six months later it had been superseded with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800. If you wanted a Samsung Galaxy smartphone with the Snapdragon 800 processor you were out of luck; you had to wait until spring 2014, but by then you had to pick up the Galaxy S5, which came with a 2.5 GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. I am not picking on Samsung as there’s a very similar case to be made for most of the competition, such as the HTC, LG, Motorola and yes, even the Sony devices too.

Now, if you were able to pick up a Project Ara device in early 2013 with the Snapdragon 600 processor, 2 GB of memory, 13 MP camera, indeed a similar specification to the Galaxy S4, but when Qualcomm released the Snapdragon 800, you wanted an upgraded processor but were happy with the rest of the device… you could. Better yet, you might be able to sell on your old processor module to other users who also fancied something of an upgrade from the processor in their device. That’s the creation of a new primary market (smartphone components) and a secondary market (used smartphone components); the secondary market is also the ultimate form of recycling, especially if Project Ara leads to other devices apart from smartphones. Perhaps that old Snapdragon 600 module will work great in a 7.0-inch tablet for your kids? But better yet, it frees us – the customer – from the restrictions of having to wait for the manufacturer to design and sell us a new device. It also frees up the component manufacturers from being shackled to the device manufacturers.

There are other benefits for customers when it comes to modular versus restricted hardware and I’m going to use the personal computer industry as an example: when it comes to building a personal computer, I have a huge choice available to me if I go down the open IBM PC route, or a much narrower range if I opt for the closed Apple Mac models. I’m also free to upgrade or replace components as I see fit whereas it can be difficult to upgrade or repair Apple Macs. And so far in the computer industry, the dominant architecture in every generation up to smartphone had evolved from a relatively closed to a more modular industry. A clear set of standards and design rules can and has encouraged significant innovation within the ecosystem. There are many questions: how will the current manufacturers differentiate themselves (and this is where we will see innovation)? It also drives down component costs and opens up considerable choice.

I’m expecting the smaller manufacturers to jump onto the bandwagon: the Sonys, HTCs and Motorolas of this world. Samsung are the Android bellwether and their release schedule has dictated when other manufacturers release their products. They have much to fear from Project Ara. Google Ara may allow the smaller manufacturers to compete with Apple and Samsung. Want a device with a Sony camera module but Motorola’s sensor suite but a Samsung Exynos processor? Sure. It may be the best, or only, way for some businesses to remain in the consumer mobile industry. I’m looking at Sony and possibly BlackBerry here.

And my final thoughts concern Microsoft’s Windows 10 release. Windows Phone has, in four years, not even managed a percentage point market share per year. One way that I can see Windows Phone capturing market share is if Microsoft made it available on a modular basis, such that I could built my very own Project Ara device that could dual boot between Android and Windows Phone. I would have Android for my personal life and Windows Phone for my business life.