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.
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?
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.