Project Ara, Google’s secretive modular phone program that was threatening to completely disrupt the smartphone industry and turn it on its head, is now officially dead. It goes silently into the night, shrouded in just as much mystery as its brief existence.
In order to understand the significance of its demise though, a short history lesson is required. The launch of the first iPhone in 2007 marked the birth of the smartphone. Since then, not a lot has changed in the mobile world. Yes, a lot of new smartphones have released every year. Displays have become sharper, processors faster, cameras more accurate, and storage capacities have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. But little about the fundamental design or functionality of the rectangular bar that we know so well has changed over the last decade.
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Most of the improvements have involved in terms of making existing components slightly more efficient and packaging the innards in a shiny new case every year. And with the low-hanging fruit picked clean, the constant need for improvement is leading to less than optimal ‘improvements’ like Samsung’s exploding batteries and Apple’s missing headphone jack.
Despite what Uncle Cook unfailingly tells you every year, there is nothing revolutionary about the iPhone anymore. A phone constituted entirely of interchangeable components though – where a user could potentially remove the camera module and replace it with an extra battery or even plug in an insulin monitor or a radiation detector – now that is truly revolutionary.
And that is what Project Ara promised, and seemed close to delivering. Google announced in May that the developer edition of Ara would be out by the end of the year and the two modules mentioned earlier were just a couple of examples amongst the hundreds that companies had already announced in anticipation of the planned consumer launch in 2017.
Besides the infinite customizability it offered, the modular phone would have also increased the life span of the average smartphone, by allowing users to replace specific faulty or ageing components instead of junking entire devices.
The technical implementation of this modular dream has always been a bit of a long shot to be fair. Making a device as complicated as a modern phone modular creates a gigantic number of engineering headaches in both hardware and software departments. The industry has been full of nay-sayers from the start. However, the fact the plug has been pulled so close to the launch date indicates that the problem has to do with people rather than technology. Several high-profile Google executives who were pushing for Ara have left Google over the past year, making the project a soft target for opponents.
For now, Google says it will focus on consolidating its confusing hardware product lines, which includes the Nexus phones and tablets, Pixel laptops and many other niche devices. The modular phone isn’t completely dead, with devices like the LG G5 and Moto Z continuing to push the agenda, albeit in a more watered down manner. However, without the garguantan heft of Google behind them, it is hard to see third parties coming together to create modules for a single phone.
But for those of us who were feverishly waiting for the day when we could a laser beam attachment to our smartphones and live out childhood Star Wars fantasies, the wait goes on.
Cover image and images via dezeen.com