Tech Talk: Ara Is A Pipe Dream, LG May Have Right Idea

The original concept for Project Ara didn't just turn heads, it sent jaws to the floor and set millions practically salivating. The idea of buying a cheap exoskeleton and filling it up with parts to create your own ideal smartphone was simply incredible. It almost didn't matter who you asked, the opinion was unanimous; this amazing concept would change smartphones forever. Power users could deck out their set with the latest and greatest, while users on a budget could throw in the bare minimum amount of powerful parts to perform their daily functions. Photography buffs could throw in multiple cameras, Linux nerds could have unreal amounts of RAM, and anybody who wound up with a shattered screen or decided they wanted more room for modules could simply buy another exoskeleton at their leisure, at a fraction of the cost of a normal smartphone. It would be paradise... right?

Google burst that bubble on stage at Google I/O 2016. The first sign of life for Project Ara in months was, apparently, a concession to the fact that modularity in core components just wasn't something that could happen with current mobile tech. You can't just swap processors or GPUs without the right drivers on board, which meant reprogramming the OS around them. You couldn't simply slot in more RAM and instantly have a snappier device without some serious backend reconfiguring in the ROM. Instead, Ara was to focus on innovation and the production of unique modules. Sure, the core idea is still a possibility at some point, but for now, when the commercial release happens in 2017, an Ara phone will be a fixed, same-as-everybody-elses-unit 5.3 inch affair with current flagship specs and price. The uniqueness will come in the form of the ability to slot in multiple modules, like a better camera or a glucose meter, and make the phone hyper-tailored to your own needs, so long as there's a module provider out there who wants to make something for your needs.

When the LG G5 hit the market, it was lambasted for its approach to modularity. To an extent, it was rightly mocked, but the basic idea was that a phone, even a modular one, should be a phone first; basic functions are taken care of with gusto, then the possibility of adding on to the phone's capabilities is fussed over. While some of the LG G5 "Friends" are on sale right now, some, such as the much-hyped audio DAC module by Bang & Olufsen, famous for their quality work with PC OEMs like HP, are still in the ether. Despite this, anybody picking up the LG G5 can expect a quality flagship Android experience, making it a serious competitor against the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10, its top contenders. While LG's minimal approach to modular capabilities was called out by many as being noncommittal and even tacked-on, it may just be the right approach, for now.

A would-be Ara buyer not only has to wait for the commercial release, they have to buy separate modules and wait for the modules they want to be made, in order for their phone to be any more special than the average flagship. A would-be Ara buyer with the original concept would see this concept ensnare them entirely; rather than relevance, they would be buying modules to have a phone at all. While the price would have come out about the same, it's clear that this approach, similar to the desktop PC market, is for hardcore users and most mainstream consumers would want nothing to do with it. Aside from that fact, full modularity right now just isn't reasonable. We don't have an ultra low-power processor strong enough to maintain a device's essentials, like volatile NAND chips, while a processor switch is going on, for example. Meanwhile, Ara in its current form, while feeling like a slap in the face to the ones who have been watching the project since its inception with bated breath, will be better for the mainstream market. With a fuss-free main experience, users are free to focus on more specific customizations. Medical equipment? Yeah, it's happening. Swappable cameras? Yep, on board. Extra battery modules that allow your phone to stream Netflix through the entire camping trip to the endless annoyance of your tentmates? Also on the table. Style modules that look great, but don't do much of anything? Definitely on the menu. More modules are obviously coming in the future, but even in its current form, Ara offers something new in the market. With so much that could go wrong, and so much that did often go wrong in early tests, seeing Ara change forms to allow more wiggle room with its headline feature is no surprise and may actually be a blessing. Nobody will know for sure until the device drops in 2017.

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