Smartphone war leaves Google handset plans in pieces

Project Ara
Project Ara has sparked debate across the web

Project Ara was initially a Motorola project. However, Google liked the modular mobile concept so much it kept hold of the Ara development team when it offloaded its short-lived hardware ambitions to Lenovo earlier this year.

The concept behind Project Ara is simple and quite exciting to hardcore phone fans. The plan is to break a smartphone down into its individual components, then let users build their own bespoke mobiles, similar to the way you can choose the seats, the engine size and whether you'd like very expensive and special shiny paint or not when buying a car.

The problem is, it's had a kind of "vapourware" look to it from the offset. Can Project Ara really happen? Can Google build these modules and their 3D printed cases, then sell them at anything like a decent price to millions of people? Is it all just one big, loss-leading PR stunt to get people thinking that Android isn't only about generic-looking Samsung slabs?

Planning permission

Over on CNN some good was seen in the plan, where sensible person FutureFox likened it to the craze for after-market phone cases we saw emerge in the late 1990s. Foxy said: "There is always a market for customization. The thing people are already primed into the idea of customizing their phones by adding charms, swapping the back cover colors etc. The smartphone is a status/flashy symbol of one's personality."

However, the plan was also likened to the nerdy world of the enthusiast builder by OnPrinciple who asked the equally sensible question: "When was the last time you bought a car chassis, an engine, a gear box, two differentials, four wheels, a steering column, a brake system, an electrical system and a mile and a half of wiring to assemble your dream car?"

At least assembling a phone won't require getting black stuff under our delicate modern fingernails. Plus snapping a new camera onto a Project Ara chassis is unlikely to require a trip to the shops to buy the right kind of tool for the job.

Reader CryOfPaine gave us an insight into who's likely to go for it, commenting: "Personally, I love this idea. But then, I'm the kind of person that builds my own PCs."

Coin collection

Over on Engadget, reader Whacko wanted to examine the business aspect of the situation, saying: "The cost difference between a cheap camera and a high-end cell phone camera is literally less than a dollar or two at the component level, however once you have to make a fancy magnetic casing and add in those connectors, etc. you have exponentially increased the cost of the camera component."

In response, Sean J offered: "At least now I don't have to settle for whatever components were approved by the bean counters."

You don't, Sean, but you might also make their day if you buy an overly expensive camera module to plug into your vanity smartphone. If you really want to annoy the bean counters, stick to the off-contract £99 models. They hate those.

A little further down, commenter TexRob was more concerned about the pocket cargo implications. He wonders who's going to want a bulky phone even if it is nebulously expandable at some future date, saying: "This is a terrible idea that only serves to increase the size and weight of devices. I don't get this at all. In a world that is increasingly moving away from modular, to tightly packed, pre-configured systems, this sticks out like a sore thumb."

He continued: "If you could do this with no sacrifice, it'd be cool, but you just can't. You're losing spaces to the skeleton, to the connectors, to the double casings because you now multiple casings."

People put their gadgets in the ugliest of cases, though, Tex. Most mainstream buyers are more concerned about not smashing their valuable things than them being as thin as possible.

Unsupported error

Wired reader Indeterminate is not convinced there will be anything more than a year or two of support for the Lego phone format, though, and has the useless warranty cards to prove it. He tells the tale: "I remember the days of 286 computers, and I bought a motherboard that the manufacturer faithfully promised could be updated with daughter-boards making it future-proof. When the 386 was released, it was announced that due to different 386 bus architecture, it was not possible to upgrade it, and the only option was to replace the entire motherboard."

He further explains his pain: "Since then, I have never believed any promises of upgradability to any technology that is not established in the market place."

Reader Gautier is also a bit old, replying with: "The 3.5" disk form factor was introduced in 1981 and it, as well as the SCSI and IDE interface, used for more than 20 years, the serial interface, the VGA connector, the USB interface is 18 years old etc. A good design will survive."

Dana Pellerin over at Android Guys is not convinced Project Ara is a sound design concept at all, though, commenting: "I can't help but think this is going to be a disaster. Driver issues, cheap components that don't play nice, etc, I'm sitting this one out."