Motorola wants to alter the smartphones landscape forever and they plan on doing it by creating modular phones based on an open-platform, very much in the same way that desktop PCs are modular today. This is an extremely ambitious project, but if Motorola can make it happen, it would effectively change the game, and could build a vast and dynamic eco-system of third party innovative hardware vendors. As we have said during our initial coverage, ARA builds on the same idea as Phoneblocks, a modular-phone idea that was once popular, until it eventually fizzled out due to the impossibility to make it come true. It did prove one thing however: people genuinely love the modular phone idea and therefore it is worth looking into it. I am really glad that Motorola is willing to take that chance, and I respect that very much.
What exactly is Project ARA?
The basis of Project ARA is pretty simple: every phone is composed of a number of building blocks that are integrated together in a (hopefully slick) body. Display, application processor (SoC with CPU, GPU etc…), memory, battery, cameras all start as being independent “modules” that end up talking to each other via the Operating System and drivers. Phone makers pick and choose what type of phones they want to build based on the specific markets and demographics that they want to address. In the end, you get to pick one of the combination available form them. It’s not unlike picking various dishes in restaurants, and right now, there are two big restaurant in town, and a dozen smaller ones."YOU COULD BUILD THE ULTIMATE PHONE FOR YOUR SPECIFIC USAGE"
However, what if you could pick, choose and snap all these modules together yourself like ingredients? You could build the ultimate phone for YOUR specific usage and requirements. In food terms, Project Ara would open the kitchen to you and you wouldn’t depend on the smartphone builders to make the “right” choice. This is the promise, or the end-game of Project ARA. It would create “supermarkets” of phone parts that can work together.
By now, many people are already salivating at the idea of doing just this, and Motorola’s inspirational photos will undoubtedly contribute to an extreme dosage of geekyness. However, it is of course not as simple as it seems.
There are many reasons why smartphones are not modular today, so let’s take a look at the important ones. These are some of the challenges that Motorola has to overcome before making ARA a reality.
- Size / Design
- Ease of use / Software setup
- OEM and carrier control
Modular, yes – but how thin do you like it to be?
It is clear that size and designs of smartphones are an essential part of why people buy them. Although there is a market for large-display smartphones, there is hardly one for “thick and heavy” ones. By nature, a modular approach would immediately increase the bulk of smartphones. However you look at it, and integrated design will always be more space-efficient than a modular approach. This is even true for laptops: Intel tried to promote the idea of modular laptops, but although people liked the idea, it never materialized for many of the same reasons – imagine how much harder this would be with phones.
"IT DID NOT WORK FOR LAPTOPS, CAN IT WORK WITH PHONES?"However, since phones and components get ever smaller, and since we seem accustomed to the current form factors (the miniature “zoolander” phone never became a reality), it’s not out of the question that eventually a category of smartphones (maybe not the most powerful) could be built and assembled in a modular way without the size getting out of control. The usage of high-tech materials could also help make this work one day (carbon nano-tubes, etc…). Such a modular approach based on standard interconnections could even make things cheaper as scale and competition increase.
For practical reasons, it’s best to pack all the processing into a single module (SoC, memory) and that’s probably what would happen. If you are dreaming of choosing your GPU/CPU combination, you can forget about it, it’s not going to happen since both are in the same chip in smartphones.
How easy would the software be to use?
Today, when you buy a phone, it comes all pre-installed and ready to go. Because it is a highly integrated system, things mostly “just work” and although crashes do happen, they are frankly not a real problem. This is partly due to the fact that things run on a known combination of hardware and software (which is heavily tested) that is not unlike game consoles. Updates are also tested as a monolithic ensemble, which makes them fairly reliable, and serious incident of “bricked” phones are relatively rare in relation to the number of smartphones in circulation.
Making things modular would create an explosion of possible combinations of hardware/software which would make things more difficult to test. Updates for each modules may also have to arrive asynchronously, since it’s impossible to guarantee that any given combination will be in sync.
That said, all those problems can be solved. After all, PCs run on an extraordinarily vast array of hardware/software/OS. This has to represent millions if not billions of possible combinations when you take into account USB devices etc. And it all works well enough for us to use every day. Conceptually, smartphones could also reach the same level of modularization. It’s a very hard problem, but nothing that time and hard work wouldn’t solve.
This would change the mobile landscape forever
If such a thing would happen, today’s dominant players will not be happy. After all, they are strongly entrenched into positions where the barrier of entry is Billions of dollars high, making it very risky for any newcomers to enter. Although companies like Xaiomi have successfully entered the Android market, this cannot be compared to the PC ecosystem of the 90s where you had tons of OEMs fighting for market share.
Project ARA would effectively enable the likes of Dell, Alienware, Falcon Northwest to do what they did on PC: become successful in a computer market by adding value on top of a vast choice of standard components.
If Project ARA was to be a success, Apple would inexorably be the one to lose the most, but it would not be the only one. Although Samsung is an incredibly powerful player on the components side, it is clear that the added-value of building phones represents billions of dollars in revenues. ARA could make this money flow to new OEMs, or to component makers, if there was a dynamic “white-label” phone market. OEMs could leave the software work to Google and module providers and focus exclusively on design, pricing and services.
Component makers like Qualcomm, NVIDIA and others could also gain hugely from this. Since Apple holds a big chunk of the market, and since it makes its own application processor (AP) there’s no question that this market is locked away from any 3rd party chip vendor. Samsung holds a similar position with its Exynos processors, although at a lesser degree since it still buys chips from others. A successful “modularization” of smartphones would trigger an even more intense arms race among chipmakers to release new chips on their own schedule.
Of course, all of this relies on a successful transition from integrated design to a modular approach. To be fair, this is something that should already be happening with internal components even today, and that’s not always the case. This is very hard, but depending on where you set the measure of success, this could happen on a technical level."THE PACE OF INNOVATION OF THE COMMUNITY CAN OUTPACE ANY SINGLE COMPANY"
Now, whether the other market forces will allow this happen is another issue. This could be chapter in an epic struggle for control, power and money over one of the biggest market on the planet. If such an approach was to work, Motorola would need to transform itself from a phone maker to a phone assembler in order to truly benefit from this. Google is the company that would benefit the most, assuming that Android remains the main OS powering those phones.
Such a modular approach could also benefit from Microsoft which has ample experience in this type of ecosystem. Its driver model could become an asset all the sudden, however, the price structure of Windows Phone may not be advantageous to OEMs or end-users. This shows the level of confidence of Google in the future evolution of Android. With such complex software interactions between modules, ARA would raise the barrier of entry for OEMs who are thinking of building their own OS… but this is another story.
In the end, I really love the idea of having modules because users and innovators will benefit from something like ARA. Standards are “bridges” that join different technological worlds. Once they are built, the pace of innovation of the community can outpace any single company.