Should Apple Be Deathly Afraid of This $50 Smartphone?

Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Android, which powers Samsung's flagship devices, has undoubtedly been a disruptive force in the smartphone and tablet market. Even free and open operating systems, however, have not been enough to dethrone Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) from its grasp on the lion's share of profits in the smartphone and tablet market's Apple pioneered in the second Steve Jobs' era.

But what if Google was able to take this same low-cost and open approach for software and apply it to hardware? And what if this approach drove prices of formidable smartphones down to levels we never imagined? How would Apple hold up then?

Project Ara. Image source: Motorola official blog.

A potentially disruptive moonshot
When Google announced on Jan. 29 that it was selling Motorola to Lenovo, Google didn't give up its smartphone hardware efforts entirely. The online search giant decided to keep Motorola's boldest and wildest project. The effort is called Project Ara. What is Project Ara? An undertaking to pioneer an open and modular smartphone with a target price of $50. According to Time, Google hopes to launch Project Ara's $50 smartphone in about a year.

Time's Harry McCracken cites a lead executive on the effort who gives us a 10,000-foot look at the project:

The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?' says Paul Eremenko, the DARPA alumnus who leads the effort. 'Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space.

Threat, or not?
A couple of years ago, Clay Christensen (author of Innovator's Dilemma and creator of modern disruption theory) expressed concerns about Apple: "The transition from proprietary architecture to open, modular architecture just happens over and over again." In the interview, Christensen followed that thought by citing Apple's history in the PC market as an example. Though the smartphone market has thus far unfolded in quite a different manner -- one that actually rewarded Apple for its proprietary approach -- Project Ara's role in the physical manifestation of Google's open approach in operating systems could take things to a whole new level. Modular hardware that inspires third-party innovation at the physical level could give Christensen's sound bite new traction.

Project Ara. Image source: Motorola official blog.

Predicting this early in the game that Google's moonshot efforts to open up hardware to third-party developers will meaningfully disrupt Apple's proven proprietary approach to high-end devices backed by a carefully planned and interdependent ecosystem of hardware, software, and services would be risky speculation. But the fundamental idea of Google's Project Ara is worth some consideration -- if an open and modular approach to mobile hardware took off successfully, there could be disruptive implications.

At this point, Google's Project Ara isn't enough to alter any investment thesis for companies in the smartphone space, but it's an effort investors should keep an eye on.

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Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2014, at 9:37 PM, larryw101 wrote:

    Another worthless article by Motley' fools.

    Motley is the best example of garbage financial journalism.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 12:29 AM, GaryDMN wrote:

    Every Android phone manufacturer should be afraid of any and all $50 smartphones, because Apple doesn't lose business to cheap phones, other Android players do. Profit margins will be even uglier for open source phone manufacturers going forward.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 5:25 AM, fauxscot wrote:

    Nope.

    There are many tech reasons. Designing a snow man one snowball at a time isn't a recipe for fine art, it's a recipe for hodgepodge.

    You know how folks are always bringing up the fragmentation of the Android world? Mostly, they are referencing software. This extends all the bad pieces of that to hardware.

    Sleep tight Apple.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 5:34 AM, gsagi wrote:

    Betteridged it, again.

    The ADD-Aspergers-Google moonshot-horror story will not go away.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 8:58 AM, johnnyfrankie wrote:

    'Sleep tight apple?' Yeah right. Apple is not the world leader in smart phone technology nor sales. Nice try though. Guess you must own some failing apple stock. Deal with it. Android is beautiful and here to stay. Cheaper phones WILL attract customers. Just common sense. Something apple lacks. But they sure as heck know how to hypnotize some dolts into thinking they are the (s)hyt! Lmao!

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 11:44 AM, Advisor321 wrote:

    Gary DMN, read the article again. These will be HIGH END phones (meaning high end specs) for $50.

    Everyone knows by now when they buy an Apple product, they aren't paying for the quality. They're paying for Apple to take a huge profit.

    Sleep with one eye opened, Apple.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 11:46 AM, Waldo wrote:

    Should Mercedes Benz be afraid of a Ford Focus? Should Harley-Davidson be afraid of a Moped? Should Caterpillar be afraid of Bobcat?

    Just more examples of useless headline grabbers the dolts at Motley Fool can use to get clicks. You're welcome M/F. Send my check to:........................

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 12:59 PM, Computerworgen wrote:

    Tech Impaired Apple users are not buying iPhones to save money. If they were worried about saving money, they would buy those $120 Android Phones. They buy those iPhones so they can feel Hip & Trendy & fit in with all the other iMorons at the local Coffee shops. These cheap Android phones are not a threat to the Apple Kingdom. As much as I hate Apple's iPhone, the Android market is too fragmented & your Android Experience is determined by the crap & bloat that your Carrier & the phones manufacturer put into the Android phone. Touchwiz anyone?

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2014, at 8:50 PM, Newtlover wrote:

    Take out "Apple" and insert "Samsung". The initiation fee to join Apple's club is $200 while Android/Samsung's is about $1.

    Apple's users maybe mindless zombies who buy Apple Products as they come out, but even Samsung can dream about that loyalty.

    Now a $50 phone (not $1 mind you) will cause people to migrate to Android?!?

    Market Share is pointless in this market segment. Yes, I know Apple is being crushed in Market share by Android...something like 70% Android to 20% Apple, but should Apple care?

    100 phones. 70 phones that charge $1 = $70. 20 phones that charge $200 = $4000. Why should I care about market share?

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