When Project Ara was first announced, long before Google took it under its wing, one of the key selling points was that it would help wean us off our thirst for bi-annual smartphone updates. The problem with bi-annual updates is that while technology is wonderful and everyone has a bit of tech lust in them, the repeated manufacturer of smartphones does horrible things to the planet.
There are other companies working on smartphone sustainability, but Project Ara also appealed to the geeky side of people who get really excited about phones: upgrades! Add in a new module, and your smartphone will be as good as new. And with Google now taking ownership of the project, this madcap project was almost certain to happen, rather than being a crazy dream.
Well, now the full details are emerging, and it’s far from the solution to the problem. It’s still neat, but it’ll do nothing for our thirst for upgrades, instead being nothing more than a niche distraction.
The trouble is that there are limits to exactly what can be changed, and the main elements that drive upgrades are completely locked down to the frame of the phone. You can’t change the GPU, CPU or screen – if I were to pluck a figure completely out of the air, I’d say that covers around 90% of the reasons people choose to upgrade, even if they don’t know the exact terminology.
In other words, it’ll do very little to end the two year upgrade cycle.
So who will it appeal to, if not the mainstream or the eco-conscious? That’s actually quite a tough question to answer. You could potentially plug in an additional battery module, if you like, or some chunkier speakers for better quality sound, but both of these things can already be done on existing phones with a spare battery and a bluetooth speaker. Upgraded cameras is a nice idea, but if you buy a strong enough phone from the get-go, then you’ll probably be happy enough with your existing handset, and if you’re serious about photography, you’ll probably eye up a dedicated device anyway.
CNET refers to things like sensors for air quality, or glucometers for diabetics, and these are pretty cool for certain people but nobody would claim they’re anything other than a niche interest. There’s also doubtless a geeky thrill in plugging in phone upgrades like Lego bricks, but that’ll only take you so far – especially if the core specs compare unfavourably with other handsets.
In fact, the Ara doesn’t seem to offer a great deal more in terms of customisation than the LG G5, which is a bit of a let-down. A lot will depend on developer support, of course, and it’s possible amazing modules will emerge, though you get the impression that any popular idea will just be ‘borrowed’ and inserted into the next flagship.
For now though, I’m proclaiming Project Ara as just “not that exciting,” but I genuinely hope I’ll be eating my words later this year when the first developer editions ship later this year.
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