In a recent blog post, Dave Hakkens, the guy who painted that awesome picture of a modular smartphone in all our minds with his Phonebloks video that went viral on YouTube, outline three crucial changes to Google’s latest version of Project Ara, some of which he is not pleased with: Less modular, Design changes and Google’s tight control over the project.
To really understand why Dave disagrees with these changes, we first have to reflect on the initial reason why Dave created the Phonebloks video.
Original Phonebloks Video
Electronic waste is a huge problem globally, the devices that we all love and use are causing a big electronic waste problem and the main reason for this is because we simply replace and dispose of our electronic devices far too often (partly thanks to the yearly smartphone release cycles). Dave’s solution was to create a device that is up-gradable so we don’t toss it when we want something new, instead we could simply replace the display, CPU RAM and GPU (SOC), battery, camera etc.
Changes to Ara that Dave disagrees with
Dave disagrees with Google’s move to place all main core components (SOC) into the frame of Ara, while allowing only six interchangeable modules on the back of the device. He explains that “they changed this in the last update which is a BIG DEAL. It basically means the Ara skeleton is a fully equipped phone with things like CPU, antennas, sensors, battery and display. The 6 little blocky modules on the back of the phone are just add-ons like better camera’s, speakers, scanners etc. Things to customise your phone, for fun.
It means your phone still gets obsolete after a while. What if your screen breaks? Well you still need to replace the entire phone. And after a couple of years it gets slow and you need to replace your entire skeleton.”
He also disagree with the tight control which Google has on Ara and it’s hardware ecosystem. “Originally their goal was to ”create a phone for the entire world”, we loved this. Ara is build on open standards, and developers can develop their own modules. Which is great. It creates and ecosystem of modules. However it isn’t truly open. Everything happens under the umbrella of Google.” Dave further explains that “They are in charge, they make the rules. They can decided to suddenly change the connectors, or design. Making all previous modules you have obsolete. It’s a powerful ecosystem which shouldn’t be in the hands of one organisation.”
Project Ara was initially expected to full fill the Phonebloks dream, but with all core components packed into the frame, it turns out that it really isn’t a complete modular device anymore, and with a closed modular ecosystem, developers will be able to create modules for the device, but Google alone will have control over how the frame is created and no other company will be able to create frames that utilize Ara modules. This is why Dave Hakkens thinks Ara have somewhat swayed out of the path of what he initially dreamed Phoneblocks to be.
My thoughts on the matter
So after reading Dave’s blog post which I’ll link to here, I understood Dave’s stance on the matter of Google and Project Ara, however, I also understand why Google chose the path that they are currently on. Instead of focusing on modular smartphone fans along with the Phonebloks dream of removable modules to prevent frequent disposal of one’s devices, Google being a company did what companies do, they focused on the everyday consumer.
In an interview with Cnet’s Sean Hollister, lead engineer on Project Ara Rafa Camargo, said “when we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions,” Camargo explains. “They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent. Our initial prototype was modularizing everything…just to find out users didn’t care,” he adds.
From this interview we can clearly see that Rafa Camargo has NO idea why Phonebloks became popular, and what Project Ara’s initial goal was! No true modular smartphone fan would have ever said that they do not care about “modularizing everything,” and in making the decision to reduce Ara’s modular features they have completely ignored the very same fans whom they were initially making the device for.
Two things have clearly changed in Google’s strategy for Ara:
- Google is no longer creating a device for modular smartphone fans.
- Google is no longer focused on creating a low cost device that could reach the next billion people around the world that do not have a smartphone.
Ara has simply become another smartphone to compete with the iPhone!
But There is still hope
So we won’t be getting the super awesome modular smartphone that we had all hoped for, not for now at least, but luckily Google hasn’t completely killed their initial goals for Ara. In the interview with C|net, Rafa Camargo mentioned that the technology to swap out processors and radios still exists. “We have the capabilities to do that, so things will evolve.” And Google also plans on allowing other companies to make Ara frames as their technology progressies.
Fans of Google’s initial modular smartphone want exactly what Google pitched when they revealed Project Ara, but without hopes of a wide scale adaptation of the device, there is no guarantee that Google will keep working on Ara, and if Ara doesn’t take off then our entire modular device hopes might be shattered.
Project Ara has somewhat changed course, but it still doesn’t mean that fans of the modular smartphone won’t get what they want. Google is still our best bet so we just have to wait with hopes that everything will work out in the end.
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