Google will not make Project Ara modular smartphone

The project would have allowed users to customize phones on the fly

Google has dropped plans for a modular smartphone with interchangeable parts as it realigns its investments in the area of hardware.

While the company will not be releasing the Project Ara phone that was to have been easily customizable, it may bring the phone to market through licensing deals with partners, Reuters reported late Thursday.

Google confirmed the report was “true and accurate” but said it had no official comment.

The Lego blocks model for smartphone design was first mooted by Google in 2013 through Motorola Mobility, a company the Internet giant acquired but then sold to Lenovo in 2014. It was positioned as a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. Google said it was aiming to build a hardware ecosystem of module makers and other partners on the scale of the software app ecosystem.

The company had planned to start testing the project in Puerto Rico last year, but those plans were scrapped while the company reevaluated its plans for the smartphone.

"Project Ara was a fascinating concept but I would've been surprised if it had taken off commercially," said Bryan Ma, vice president of devices research at IDC. "Smartphones by nature of their small sizes demand very tight integration."

While the idea of reducing electronic waste by using modularly upgradable phones was a noble cause, it would have had to swim upstream against the fast phone upgrade cycles seen in the smartphone market, where vendors like Apple and Samsung keep dangling new flashy goodies each year, Ma added.

Google said in May that developers would get their hands on an early release version of Ara by the end of this year to start building custom hardware modules for the device. It changed its design philosophy to integrate many core mobile phone components like the CPU and radio into the Ara 'frame,' while leaving other modules to be customized.

The company said at Google I/O 2016 that it had integrated the phone technology into the frame to free up space for modules that add new functionality not found on smartphones today. Future frames could be larger, smaller or completely different from a smartphone, executives said, while talking about a modular computer platform.

Other vendors have also been experimenting with modular phones, with some variations in the main concept. Motorola, for example, released in July its Moto Mods Development Kit that would allow designers to snap on ‘Moto Mods’ such as blood-pressure monitors, game controllers or air pollution sensors to the back of their Moto Z phones.

There could still be opportunities for modular phones despite Google walking out from the business. Some specific vertical or enterprise functions might benefit from swappable modules, and even for the mainstream consumer, vendors like Motorola and LG have flirted with the idea of modularity, though more as extensions and accessories rather than the core phone itself, Ma said.

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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