Remember Phonebloks? It was a modular phone concept looking to get attention with “crowdspeaking.” We dismissed the idea as goofy… but Google was listening.
Motorola Mobility has announced that they’ve been working on a modular smartphone, Project Ara, for nearly a year. It’s essentially what it sounds like: A basic phone they’re calling an “endoskeleton” that allows you to slot and swap out specific components. It’s a bit less of a “Legophone” than Phonebloks, but it’s the same basic idea.
Remember, though, that Motorola Mobility is essentially Google’s mobile hardware arm. Is Google doing this, like it does so many things, because it’s weird and rich? Nope. Google is actually trying to make history repeat against its competitor, Apple.
Google and Apple, and to a lesser degree Amazon, are locked in a fight over who’s going to be the one who provides your mobile software, and all the app downloads and music sales that go with it. It’s a fight Apple is eventually going to lose; Apple has to make physical things, while Google just has to sell ads, and Apple’s recent press events have illustrated just how bored it is with the iPhone and iPad. The only question is how long it’s going to take.
Google is essentially hoping we’ll see a repeat of the ’80s and ’90s PC wars, where architecture became the deciding factor. To translate from nerd, Apple products are “closed architecture”; Apple controls everything about them, from the design of the hardware to the software you’re allowed to use on it. Your Windows PC, on the other hand, is “open architecture”; anybody can make one out of components you can buy, and anybody can write any software they feel like. They’re also cheaper. This is why Bill Gates is the richest human being on Earth.
Both designs have benefits and drawbacks, and to be honest, the idea of an open architecture smartphone kind of makes me cringe a little bit in some respects. But there are definite benefits, even if it’s a bit more restrictive than the original dream. So essentially, Google wants history to repeat; the cheaper, easier-to-configure product beats out the closed product that “just works.”
Will it work? Good question. Honestly, I see Apple ultimately getting out of the mobile game as competitors chip away at it and it becomes more interested in putting processors in every appliance you own. But I’m not sure that Project Ara, even if it is a good idea, will speed that process up any.