Project Ara, the modular handset

Smartphones have come a long way since their inception; though the idea of a portable device with internet connectivity and calling features has been around since the 1980s, it was not well received until 2006, with Blackberry’s new devices such as the Curve and Pearl. It revolutionised the way mainstream society viewed portable electronic devices and our uses for mobile phones. However, Blackberry did not enjoy this success for long, with the launch of the revolutionary iPhone, from Apple. It incorporated a touchscreen, and only 4 buttons. People were amazed by the fluidity of a device which essentially had nothing but screen on the front face. Apple’s market share grew rapidly, for example, increasing 626% globally in the smartphone sector, between the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009.

The smartphone industry proved itself unpredictable once more in 2010, with Android’s new ‘Gingerbread’ overtaking iOS in the US, having already overtaken iOS in markets such as South Korea in 2009. With this saw the rise of OEMs such as Samsung, LG and HTC. Apple released the iPhone 4, a beautifully designed phone with ‘Retina display’ which yielded a positive response from the consumer market. Blackberry’s RIM was still going strong, however, failing to generate sales. 2010 also saw Microsoft’s attempt to tap into the smartphone market with Windows Phone, which did not meet good reception.

 

Android Gingerbread
The home interface of Android gingerbread – image source: http://developer.android.com/about/versions/android-2.3-highlights.html

In 2011, with the release of Android 4.0.4, or ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’, Android phones finally started to be perceived as high-end, mainly due to the refreshed, sleeker interface Ice Cream Sandwich brought, and the smoother user experience, thanks to ‘Project Butter’, in Jelly Bean, 4.1. Android’s market share grew further to 36% in the US, placing them in a comfortable first position in terms of market share. Samsung also released the hugely popular Galaxy S2, and Apple released the iPhone 4S, which brought in Siri, a voice controlled assistant. By this point, Blackberry’s market share in the US decreased to less than that of Android and iOS.

 

Ice Cream Sandwich
The home interface of Android Ice Cream Sandwich – image source: http://developer.android.com/about/versions/android-4.0-highlights.html

Fast forward to 2014, where 80% of the world’s smartphones run on Android, and where Samsung is the biggest producer of smartphones internationally. Android Kit Kat brought performance and aesthetic improvements to Android, and Apple’s iOS got its long-awaited makeover in iOS 7 – which produced mixed opinions. HTC and LG gained a significant amount of market share, with the One M8 and G3 respectively, in markets such as the US, Europe, South Korea and Australia. However, it came as a shock that less popular manufacturers such as Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi had superceded manufacturers such as LG, Sony and HTC in the global market. This reiterated the influence that the Chinese market had on global business, and its sheer size.

The sudden entry of China into the smartphone market was expected, but not to the scale which it has. Not only have the consumers in China played a huge role in the global market share of OEMs, but their manufacturers such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo, and more recently, OnePlus, have given the traditional smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung a real dilemma. Samsung is rapidly losing profits; quarterly projections going down by numbers such as 40% and 60%, and LG and HTC are struggling to keep their heads above the water. Chinese manufacturers are beginning to build great devices such as the OnePlus One, or the Xiaomi Mi3, with high-end specs, but sell for half the price of their counterparts of traditional OEMs.

 

OnePlus One
The ‘flagship killer’ OnePlus One, from OnePlus – image source: http://oneplus.net/

I believe that next year will be pivotal in the smartphone industry; due mainly to the speculated release of the modular phone; Project Ara.

Project Ara will be the ‘next big thing’. It can be tailored to the needs of the individual, therefore, has the capacity to be a high-end or mid-range device. The concept of not having to buy a new handset every time a new chipset comes out, or when the screen is cracked, is intriguing. If marketed and manufactured well by Google, it will cause the idea of the ‘complete handset’ totally redundant.  Consumers will only buy a new processing package, insert it into their modular phone, at only a fraction of the cost of buying a totally new handset.

This will pose a serious concern for current manufacturers. Instead of building complete handsets, companies will look for ways to monopolise the industry for a certain part of the modular phone. For example, Samsung and LG may both aim to control the displays of Project Ara, while Qualcomm with the chipsets. Unless the business can achieve a monopoly or duopoly of such industries, they will experience severe losses, provided that Project Ara is successful.

What must also be considered is the third-party, non-authorised manufacturers. These will be extremely popular in markets such as China, which, as proven before, is a market crucial to the survival of a consumer-oriented business. These ‘pirate’ manufacturers will provide parts of lesser quality, however, cheaper price, and can cause a formidable dent in the income of respective manufacturers.

The potential repercussions of the launch of the Project Ara platform to the smartphone industry are concerning. If it is as popular as it is believed it will be, it will result in the complete monopolisation of the smartphone market with Android, and with only one handset. It will minimise variation, innovation, originality and creativity; the smartphone industry will be extremely static. Therefore, I can hope another company will reciprocate Project Ara in an equally fantastic product, in order not to let Google singularly rule the industry, and maintain the dynamic, multifaceted environment of the smartphone industry, which is ultimately what renders the sector as stimulating as it is.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. My guess is google just wants to create a phone that’s free to anyone willing to give up there personal data and project Ara’s base model will be just that, then the enthusiasts can mod it out with whatever high end parts they can find. I personality don’t like the thought of Ara , seems like were actually progressing backwards towards windows clusterfuck experience when nothing “just worked” and every action was a tedious exercise in sanity and Patience. How will a screen from Samsung and a camera from Sony speakers from Bose an LTE chip from some cheap chines maker and a SOC from AMD work together?… Maybe flawlessly but if history is anything to go by don’t count on it

    • Google is fundamentally a company of scientists / idea people. They try to do cool things… and then hope that because they did something cool, there will be some money to be made also… although there often isn’t that much… compared to what they’re actually giving (and sometimes there isn’t any at all… which is no reason to not do something cool and share, if you can easily afford it and want to)

    • I personally don’t see the problem with Project Ara. It will work the same way you plug in your Samsung flat screen monitor to your nividia graphic card which is connected to the motherboard you have know idea who made which has the CPU your brother got from a friend. The parts will just work. Sure there will be problems in the beginning. I still remember hunting down drivers on floppies and setting IRQ’s on an old 386 computer. Things have changed a lot since then. If Ara does well then there will definitely be competition building similar devices. If they are smart they will play well with each other’s products and there will be a new era of personal computing devices. If it doesn’t work then it will at least be stepping stone for what does work. I’ll pick one up to play with but I’m sure I’ll hang onto my S5. Android didn’t start out with Ice Cream Sandwich and I’m sure Project Ara will change quite a bit until it is stable and accepted enough for everyone to enjoy.

      On the plus side, this format opens the door for small companies and startups to offer unique products that would otherwise never be seen in a smart phone. I was happy with the Galaxy S3’s camera and storage. I would gladly have dropped $100 on a new processing unit and kept the old phone instead of paying a whole lot more for the S5. If I had an “Ara Phone” I could have done that.

      And if you’re worried about Google building a phone to gather your data then just set your cell phone down (and you’re tablet, laptop and desktop) and just walk away. That problem is already out there with every device you own and every carrier you use with every company that can get it.

  2. Its not only Google supported, but is supported by millions of peoples.
    I guess, you all would have heard of phoneblocks.
    Phoneblock was a kickstarter project and many people worldwide had supported it by giving likes.
    So, this would be definitely successful.
    It will provide the latest hardware to your smartphone without need of changing smartphone.
    If you don’t love the concept now, you will surely like it when it will be released.
    :-)

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