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The rise and fall of Google’s modular phone dream

January 10th, 2017 at 5:24 PM
Google Project Ara

Modular phones had a brief flirtation with popularity over the last few years. Between the Moto X, LG G5 and Google’s Project Ara, a couple notable companies made real stabs at modular smartphones, only to be met with a resounding meh.

We can write off the Moto X and LG G5 as phone companies trying to keep up with the fads, but Google’s Project Ara always felt like something a little more ambitious. A completely modular phone would have revolutionized the industry, had it ever actually worked.

VentureBeat‘s Harrison Weber spoke to a number of the execs and designers on the inside of Google’s Project Ara to try and work out what happened to the concept. Ara was a promising lead for Google for a number of years, with a serious demo at last year’s I/O conference, and a promise in May that you’d be able to buy a modular phone in 2017.

But in September, Google unceremoniously axed the project, which had already missed development and pilot project milestones. Weber’s profile paints a picture of a project lacking vision and a precise demographic.

As he explains, Ara’s popularity was kickstarted by a confusing relationship with Phonebloks, a viral video for a modular smartphone made by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. His video was released just as Google’s ATAP division was working on a prototype for a modular smartphone, and the two projects lived an uneasy relationship, with some communication between Hakkens and Google, for over a year.

Initially, the idea of the ATAP project was to make a fully modular smartphone that had a very low price point for a basic phone. Google’s idea was that the $50 base phone could be cheaply configured to work in different markets, extending Android’s reach in the developing world.

But as costs and time spiralled, the vision was changed until it started looking more like LG’s idea of a modular phone — a fully functioning smartphone that can have capabilities added on.

In the end, a combination of senior staff leaving, Google’s austerity drive and waning public interest saw the project shelved. Weber’s article does a neat job of explaining how Google took a viral idea, built hype, and then failed to ever see it through.

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