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Summary:

Google is aiming for a $50 phone out of Project Ara, the effort to create a modular smartphone. Don’t get too excited just yet though: That base handset won’t be nearly as capable as the phone you likely use today.

project ara phone
photo: Motorola

So if you weren’t impressed by the phones that debuted this week at Mobile World Congress, there’s hope yet you might be happy. What if you could create your own smartphone instead of buying a cookie cutter model designed to sell to millions around the world? Your new phone would truly be your phone as you could pick different pieces, each with a function of your choice, and piece them together in a single handset. Google’s Project Ara is exactly that solution.

The effort was actually started by Motorola and is similar to earlier projects started by Modu and Phonebloks. Google has agreed to sell Motorola to Lenovo for $2.91 billion but Project Ara is staying with Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, also known as ATAP.

project ara modules

The Google ATAP team opened up to Time’s Harry McCracken this week, providing a closer look at the concept and suggesting that Google hopes to hit a $50 price point for Ara. That’s aggressive considering the bill of materials in today’s basic Android phones. The components in the Moto G, for example, are estimated to cost $123 and that’s a pretty low- to mid-range handset. Granted Google is hoping to have an actual Ara product on the market in about a year, so component costs will surely drop.

Even so, how good of an experience can a $50 phone built with modular components actually be? Don’t expect a high-resolution display at that price, for starters, and you may also be looking at a phone with a slower 2G or 3G mobile broadband connection. Google says for $50 it may not even have a mobile broadband connection, opting for a less-expensive Wi-Fi radio. I can see some potential here in emerging markets that have limited or no broadband infrastructure, but outside of those areas, you’ll have to pay more.

That has me wondering: How much would I pay for a modular phone that I’d actually be happy to use?

Moto X front top

Well, I can live with a 720p display — I already do with my Moto X — and if I had to go back to a 3G connection, I suppose I could do that as well. Dropping down to a lower camera sensor would be tough and I certainly wouldn’t want a cheaper, small battery. Every little component boost over a $50 basic price is going to add up pretty quickly here. In fact, to get the phone I want with all of the features and functions that would make me happy, I wonder: Would I end up paying more for such customization ability?

Don’t misunderstand me: I think there’s merit to Project Ara and other similar efforts. Aside from aiming for a truly low-cost device that could help connect more people to the mobile web, there are other benefits. If one particular part of your modular phone breaks — the display is a perfect example — it could be more cost-effective to swap out that single part. And instead of buying a whole new phone every 12 to 24 months just to get a few new features, it might be more feasible to swap in a faster processor, more memory or a higher resolution display.

But lets not kid ourselves: The odds of Project Ara transforming the mobile industry are slim and the costs won’t be cheap. There’s always a premium price to pay for products that you create or customize yourself compared to an off-the-shelf product that enjoys huge economies of scale.

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  1. I think if it was $50 for a base shell leaving me having to buy the modules I want to plugin to the shell I’d be fine with that.

    However, if the shell the Ara device is $50 and comes with a basic set of functionality (screen, camera, wireless radios, etc…) and I couldn’t buy better modules to replace the base modules I would have zero interest in this.

    Ara needs to be the mainboard/bus to modules which power the phone itself from processor & memory to screen and peripheral units like camera. To me, outside of growth markets, a baseline simple smartphone device that you can replace units as upgrades are released doesn’t meet my needs.

  2. Isn’t the big issue an economic one? Obviously an OEM will be making a non modular phone with similar or better components at a cheaper price? So goggle has basically announced a cheap iPod touch? Certainly there are already similar wifi only products in the market. I really don’t see the incentive for third party component producers to make special parts for Ara (standard component with a special connector and mounting “subchasis”).

    The obvious chicken and egg issue for third-party module producers could be initiall solved by Google jumpstarting the effort by offering a variety of modules to start with. But given the speed at which entire phones become obsolete imagine how quickly the module components will become obsolete? Seems like a forecasting and inventory “nightmare”. Is bestBuy going to spend “millions” stocking their stores and warehouses with our a components?

    There are valid reasons why there are no successful modular consumer-electronics products. The closest I can think of are Homebuilt PCs but how many people do that anymore?

    I just don’t see this working out. Mostly because “good enough” cookie-cutter phones both at the low-end and high-end will most likely be less expensive. Especially as the SOC’s incorporate the remaining IC components. What will be left modularize? The screen, the chassis, camera and SOC. Again cheaper to build by the millions.

    A much better effort for Google to pursue would be making major components easier to replace like the screen, buttons and the battery. Those things that typically break and are expensive to replace.

    Maybe we will all be surprised by some technical innovations, but I think it is more if an economical issue. Don’t you?

    Cheers

  3. This right here is the future. We can crowds ounce innovation with the design capabilities. I for one don’t really need a camera and swapping one out for an extra sd card slot or go would be great if they can get the main board to work for multiple – swap action. Give a 12yrs old their first main board and then they themselves can upgrade it as they have money.. and if I want to upgrade each piece with $200 parts and have a $1000 plus phone.. I should be able to whilst having the parts that I deem integral.

  4. Seem like we can assembly a phone as we do for PC. Maybe in future we can upgrade CPU, VGA, RAM, camera, speaker or so.

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