Word comes this week that Google has given up its plans to build modular smartphones with interchangeable parts, having cancelled all ongoing Project Ara efforts. According to reports by Reuters and Re/code.it appears that the price of the final handsets was going to be so high as to make viability questionable, as the modular phones lost some of the cost and performance advantages of hardware integration. The company reportedly plans to concentrate on other hardware projects, including its Chromebooks and various Android-based devices.

Google began to explore the concept of modular smartphones in 2012, and publicly announced its Project Ara in late October, 2013. The company thought that for many people it would make sense to configure their smartphones themselves and then upgrade modules, as new ones come out, instead of getting entirely new handsets.

Initially, Google considered building a fully modular smartphone with a PC-like architecture in a bid to enable upgrades of core components like SoC, antenna, sensors and so on. However, this required a lot of efforts in hardware standardization, interconnection, compatibility as well as software support. Back in May, the company announced changes of the Project Ara concept. Google said that core components of modular smartphones would not be upgradeable, but users would still be able to switch camera sensors, speakers and even add secondary displays. Google promised to introduce a working Project Ara model this fall and then release a commercial product for consumers in 2017.

Modern smartphones are self-contained, cannot be upgraded and their repair is often tricky at best. However, such integration allows manufacturers to make them sleeker and cheaper. By contrast, Google’s modular design appeared to be rather bulky. Moreover, Re/code reports that Google struggled to come out with a modular smartphone that could perform up to expectations and come in at a viable cost. The price of modules themselves was also a potential concern, as they'd need to be built to handle the modular system and wouldn't necessarily enjoy the high volume sales of a solitary phone design.

As it turns out, Rick Osterloh, the new senior vice president of hardware at Google, decided to cancel Project Ara even in its “limited” form announced back in May. The company will no longer invest in the project, but may license technologies and patents it developed over the past several years to parties interested in building their upgradeable smartphones, according to reports. Keep in mind though that Google yet has to confirm its intentions regarding Project Ara.

Recently Motorola came up with the Moto Mods idea to sell add-on accessories for its Moto Z smartphones. The add-ons can transform the handset into a camera with decent optics, a projector or a stereo system. Apparently, even though Project Ara is gone for good, the concept of add-ons for smartphones lives on.

Sources: Reuters, Re/code, The Verge.

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  • mkozakewich - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    The way I see it, you can already get a really small device for pretty cheap, with Bluetooth peripherals. You can hack the device to run Linux, and then you've basically got something Pi-like.
    The most important reason is that today's CPUs tend to fit into anything, and the smallest one is generally powerful enough to run Linux and a web browser. We've reached the point of offering $9 computers.
    Reply
  • basket687 - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    At least give us smartphones with removable batteries, I am OK with that level of modularity. Reply
  • lilmoe - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    It's kind of sad that we've reached this point really... Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    Why should they. M$ charges 500$ to replace the batteries of a surface pro, why should they throw away that money for your convenience? Today people don't even really own the devices they purchase, the maker "lets them use" those devices in ways that they seem fit, which is usually something that brings more money into their pockets.

    It is a sad, sad thing that nowadays people use their devices FAR LESS than they are being used through their devices by corporations.
    Reply
  • The True Morbus - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    Why should they? Because they want my business. As it stands, there's no way I'm buying a lap top with a removable battery. Unless it's cheap as crap and I plan to throw it away in two years. But I'm not rich. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    Their game is simple - they are all practically colluding, as long as they all offer the same garbage, people will have no other option but to buy it, because there is nothing better. And it is a good deal for them as well, as this way they make far more profit than they would on more open, durable, upgradable and easy to fix devices. They will still get your business anyway. Reply
  • mkozakewich - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    Those devices are slimmer and feel much more sturdy. I agree that replaceable batteries are good (my Note II battery died after two years, but I just swapped in another), but market forces are the real driver in this case. People want the thin, good-feeling devices. There *are* devices with replaceable batteries, and people aren't buying very many of them. Reply
  • Tams80 - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    It's ironic though, that for example Samsung could have saved itself a lot of money if only they had used a replaceable battery... Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    the reason we have PC and smartphone and tablet etc. the way they are is that decreasing node size (and the cost of getting to each node) means more function can be integrated (and must be to recoup the cost) into a chip. once the industry figures out that the asymptote as really, really flattened out, only then will modularity return as cost effective. we're still in the monopoly wins mode. Reply
  • jtgmerk - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    many of the comments say that this was a stupid idea and was doomed to failure from the beginning. And in one sense they are right. But I think google learned a lot from the project on how things should work. A lot of google project never gain a lot of traction and die but i love google's attitude of trying to make it work instead of just lying down and saying the world is flat. Reply

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