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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  • ddriver - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    With the amount of resources at their disposal, it is pretty much an epic embarrassment. Of course, this assumes they actually intended to succeed, but given the course they took, it is far more logical that they intended it to fail, which would achieve plenty in their interest - show all the gullible individuals such as yourself that they are trying, and at the same time convince the world in the infeasibility of the very notion, which plays in the interest of the industry google is a part of. Just in case you missed - google ain't there to do anyone favors, their sole goal is profit. Surely, as every other corporation, they put on a mask and a play to convince people of their noble aspirations, but in reality they are just as rotten as every other corporation, the only thing that varies is the ability to mask it out. Reply
  • michael2k - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    You got it backwards. They trying to make it work was like trying to prove the world is flat.

    LG and Motorola both have a very limited modular system. Existing systems allow you to upgrade storage too. Ara was trying to create a PC, with busses and such, but required much more robust HW.
    Reply
  • watzupken - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    I feel this is a great concept, but tricky to implement. Also, the cost of the modules may not be worth the part by part upgrade too. LG tried with the G5, but clearly was not well received. Reply
  • phoenix_rizzen - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    Big problem with the G5 is the requirement to power of the device in order to swap modules. Reply
  • Vlad_Da_Great - Friday, September 2, 2016 - link

    Nexus is next. You heard it here first. Reply
  • phoenix_rizzen - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    No, it's been reported on several sites already. :) Nexus is dead, long live Pixel! Reply
  • Valantar - Saturday, September 3, 2016 - link

    Well that sucks. I've been holding out on getting a new phone until I could get something that might last more than a couple of years. I guess my options now are either PuzzlePhone or FairPhone, both of which are sadly too underpowered for my wishes. Reply
  • michael2k - Sunday, September 4, 2016 - link

    Um, iPhones regularly last for several years. The performance of the 5S, released in 2013, is still fine now and will likely still be fine in 2017. Reply
  • Valantar - Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - link

    As is the performance of my current Xperia Z2. It's perfectly "fine". But it definitely isn't fast - to the degree that its starting to bother me - and its battery is starting to show its age somewhat. And for heavier tasks, like opening large documents, that I'm needing more and more, it's barely usable. Also, its camera is laughably bad by today's standards, and its storage is abysmally slow.

    What I want: A phone that performs well by today's standards, that is easily repairable, and that - in perhaps two or three years - lets me swap in a faster SoC, a new camera module, and probably a new battery. For now, the closest thing available is the FairPhone (checks two out of three boxes, and entirely conflict and slave labor free to boot!), but it uses the same SoC as my Z2. No dice.
    Reply
  • ruthan - Saturday, September 3, 2016 - link

    Hmm so only modular and flexible device is non still pc, maybe we could have pc so small, that it could be used as phone.. Reply

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