The concept of modular smartphones really took off back in 2013 when Netherlands-based designer Dave Hakkens, showed the first Phonebloks concept video to the world, sparking the interest of smartphone enthusiasts and tech giants alike. It was Phonebloks that led Motorola to create Project Ara under Google’s umbrella (back when Motorola was owned by Google). Now, Project Ara is entirely in Google’s hands, but Dave Hakkens doesn’t seem too happy with the direction in which Google is pushing the idea of modularity. According to Hakkens in a recent post on his website, Google “could do better”.
Google’s latest Project Ara revision is more polished and closer to a commercial release than ever. The swapping of modules has been improved, and Google expects the first developer edition to be shipped sometime this fall. However, while Google Ara now seems to be heading for a 2017 commercial release, from a modularity point of view the latest revision seems to be somewhat of a step back. Unlike previous prototypes, the latest revision incorporates a non-removable display, CPU, GPU, battery, and antenna, so the handset’s “future proofing” is no longer as impressive as it used to be. Dave Hakkens believes this is a mistake, and in a recent post on his personal website, he added that the search engine giant “could do better”. In the unfortunate event of, say, breaking the display, Project Ara owners would still be required to replace the entire frame. Otherwise, due to the lack of modularity for certain key hardware components, the phone would “still become obsolete after a while”. Hakkens also criticizes Google for not making Project Ara a truly open platform. The company is in charge of the design, connectors, and has a lot of control over the modules’ development. Hakkens says that “Everything happens under the umbrella of Google. They can decide to suddenly change the connectors or design. Making all previous models you have obsolete”.
In closing, the mind behind Phonebloks advises Google not to focus on “making the next phone that sells”, but instead, divert its efforts into creating “the future phone. Truly a phone for the entire world…” Indeed, Hakkens’ original vision was to create an entirely modular smartphone which would stand the test of time with more ease compared to our daily drivers, and push the modular concept into the world of IoT (Internet of Things) and home appliances. Project Ara might not reflect this vision too accurately at the moment, but things could change in the future.