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There's been a lot of talk about Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) moonshot projects lately -- ideas that Google will throw money behind that seem fantastically out of reach. The announcement that Google's Motorola is looking into modular phone designs through its Project Ara shows the company is serious about betting on long shots -- but even Google may not be able to pull this one off.
Project Ara's building blocks
For those of you who haven't yet heard, Project Ara is the idea that users can build a smartphone that has interchangeable hardware components that plug into the device. Think of it like a phone made out of Legos, but each block is a camera, microprocessor, hard drive, etc. and can be upgraded or replaced at a users' whim.
Though Motorola has been working on the idea for over a year, it's releasing details about it partially in response to the Phonebloks project that recently garnered almost one million online supporters. Motorola said it will work with the Phonebloks' community throughout Ara's development process.
The idea of a smartphone that users can upgrade themselves while decreasing environmental impact sounds like a very Google-ly ambition. Android is an open ecosystem, and Project Ara is taking the same idea and applying it to hardware. Paul Eremenko, of Motorola's advanced technologies and project group, wrote in a blog post this week saying, "We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines."
Not an easy switch
While Android and modular hardware are a natural fit, if a segment of the market started moving in this direction, you can bet that competitors like Apple wouldn't follow suit. Apple prides itself on its highly integrated, closed, and proprietary devices and could emerge stronger if customers find switching out components doesn't work as seamlessly has they had hoped. For something like this to take off, the market would need to have smaller suppliers and manufacturers making components for the devices. It's hard to image major players wanting to spend the time and money to take a bet on users adopting the unproven tech.
It's worth bringing up that Android already has fragmentation problems across all of its versions, and hardware fragmentation could become a new problem. Ara phones could result in an almost infinite amount of configurations, leaving a massive headache for software and app developers trying to ensure their programs work on the device. Getting hardware components to work with each other will pose its own problems as well. Competing manufacturers would be designing components to interact and work with others, all on untested configurations. While it's an interesting avenue for Google to pursue, at this point it doesn't have much influence on the overall mobile space, and that may be a good thing.
Until Motorola comes out with a moonshot, it will keep bleeding out Google's profits.