With the Google Ara modular smartphone, Google wants to reach five billion people. But who are these five billion, who would buy such a smartphone? Looked at more closely, Google’s business plan may turn out to be a possible miscalculation.
By the beginning of 2015, it will be already there, the time when Google wants to bring its modular smartphone Google Ara in the market.
Google had announced it was working on a modular smartphone only at the end of 2013. Since then, Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP) has been working hard to develop the Ara by overcoming hurdles.
The Endoskelet is at the base of the Ara. The user can mount various modules like display, battery, camera, heart rate monitor, and other hardware components on the Endo’s predefined grid. The modules will be held in place by a magnet and will not fall apart even in the case of a drop. The swapping of modules is supposed to be possible even during battery operation, so the user does not have to turn off the phone with each module change.
From a single designer to an entire hardware-ecosystem
Project Ara adopts the idea of the Dutch designer David Hakkens, who advertised his Phonebloks concept on the crowdspeaking platform, Thunderclap, in the fall of 2013. Phonebloks is Hakkens’ concept of a modular smartphone that he developed in search of a more sustainable mobile phone. The starting point for Phonebloks was Hakkens’ idea was to swap only the broken units of a damaged mobile phone instead of throwing away the entire unit, and thus extending the phone’s life.
Google is now working with Hakkens and also says that it intends to extend the life of mobile phones and, thereby, reduce electronic waste. In general, however, shorter periods of use are advantageous for manufacturers because they can sell more. In the case of the Ara, Google wants to earn its profits from the sale of the modules. Google, therefore, plans to transfer the successful App Store model to the hardware market. The modules would be produced by external companies, who may sell them from licensed Google module stores to the end-use customer.
So, Google aims to build an entire hardware ecosystem consisting of various companies that will all play their part to ensure the Ara’s success. For this reason, it has decided to pursue Ara as an open source project. In the first developer conference in April 2014, Google released the Module Developers Kit (MDK) so that companies are able to work on the development of modules on their own.
Evidently, Google, despite its know-how and financial strength is not able to carry this ambitious project entirely on its own—at least within in the targeted time frame. The entire model depends on the cooperation and collaboration of component manufacturers. Only a large number of them can ensure the widest possible choice of modules, making the Ara phone attractive to the end user. After all, Google has announced that it would like to reach five billion people with the Ara.
Do people really need an Ara?
While Google’s Android, with 80% of the global market share, is the leading operating system for smartphones, only about one billion people own smartphones. With the Ara, Google wants to change the scenario by giving more people the opportunity to own mobile phones by offering them a cheap set that can be assembled with only those modules that a person really needs.
The five billion people who do not yet have smartphones are mainly located in Asian, African and South American countries. Google wants to reach these emerging markets with the Ara and win them over.
The idea is basically practicable and seems to have potential. But weaknesses show up on closer examination. If five billion people are still without smartphones, it is largely because they cannot afford them. Although Google wants to provide the basic version of Ara (the so-called Greyphone) for only US $ 50, for most people in the targeted countries this price is still too high. Moreover, it is doubtful if the modular structure has an advantage in this specific market. People who need to save every dollar for food are unlikely to spend on different modules and gadgets. Add to this that the modules will be comparatively expensive, as much as the technology in them. Even if people are able to afford the Ara, it still has to find its way to the user. The distribution of the modules will require a functioning trading and sales system. It is doubtful that Google will make it to the remotest corners of Africa to sell modules for Ara to people living there.
What the people of the developing and emerging markets really need are minimalist, standardized mobile phones. Standardization and mass production alone can ensure really low prices. Google’s approach to mass customization with the Ara takes a diametrically opposite position.
Thus, it is likely that with the Ara, Google may not be able to win the emerging mobile markets. Besides, a degree of skepticism regarding the Ara is perhaps only to be expected in a high-end market. Ara is likely to be 25% larger and heavier than conventional smartphones such as the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. The question is whether consumers, used to slim and well designed smartphones, will opt for a bulky Ara.
It is fair to say that the biggest sums of money lie with the middle class. Although Google will not be able to reach five billion new smartphone users, it seems that Ara would find its greatest possibilities in this segment.
In the end: Google might be changing the tech-world
It is desirable that Google will be able to bring the functional Ara to the market next year, providing a more environment friendly alternative to current disposable smartphones. Whether Google actually succeeds is a matter that remains to be seen. But the project’s innovative idea is in itself positive and will make the world of technology rethink. This is because the core idea of the modular design of technical devices can be applied to many applications, theoretically, at least. And this is the crucial point of the Ara project: The ATAP team does not only work on a smartphone whose components can be exchanged but also on a paradigm shift that could influence the approach of the entire technology world. Instead of producing the maximum possible compact devices in which the user cannot choose the hardware, the thinking could shift towards a somewhat larger and more sustainable design of technical devices. The idea of modular design is not entirely new, but the potential of project Ara lies in the fact that it has the backing of Google’s know-how and financial power. Thus, it might actually produce a functioning device that may not address five billion people but succeeds in convincing a section of smartphone users.