Google gamble on modular phone

Google’s advances technology and products group (ATAP) are once again demonstrating the company’s willingness to take a risk on technological innovation, as details emerge of their plans to release a modular phone.

Any new technology represents a big commitment, both for the company producing it and for the early customers trying the new device. So what do Google hope to provide, and what pitfalls might this phone face?

Project Ara

The modular phone is Google’s attempt to reinvent the mobile phone and customers’ relationship with our devices. Named Ara, the phone would come with a range of components that the user can switch in and out, held together magnetically on a single frame. Google aim to release a range of devices built on this template, from a basic phone for $50 to high end handsets at prices exceeding $500.

Consumers looking to upgrade a modular phone could buy and insert a new module, rather than replacing the whole phone as is currently the case. Looking for better connectivity? Then buy a new 4G connector (or 7G or 8G or whatever you’re onto when the time comes) and use it to replace your current component. Want a better camera? Then just buy it and plug it in. New game control mechanism released for phones? No need to buy that one model with it built in – buy the controller element and add it to your existing phone.

A long term plan

Such a big release needs lots of forward planning. Google are expecting to release the first Ara phone next year, starting near the bottom of the price and technology range to get plenty of people trying the new device. In the meantime they have started bringing in developers who might want to get involved in new technology for this phone, creating a wider network of interest and support. After all, what use is a new type of phone if it can’t run the apps and features customers are used to having? While it may take time for the Ara to reach its full potential, they’re clearly planning to hit the ground running.

Problems and potential

Assuming that the technology works, the biggest challenge for the Ara will be to get that support network in place. At the moment there is no market or infrastructure for a modular phone. They need to make sure that there will be shops ready to stock and sell new modules, not just new phones. And they will need hardware and software developers creating new and unusual components to get people excited about the project.

If the modular phone works then it could be as big a leap forward as the smartphone. Customers won’t need to replace their phones every time the screen gets cracked, the battery loses its lifespan, or a better model offers something that they want. Broken and outdated components will be replaceable, extending the lifespan of phones, reducing both their cost and their environmental impact. So the question is will Google’s gamble pay off, both for them and for their customers?

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