Call it a Lego phone, a modular phone, a DYI phone, or a totally customizable phone. Google's Project Ara is breaking a smartphone into modular pieces and letting people build custom phones.
"This is essentially a formalization of what was becoming a pesky [issue] of handholding of OEMs," Richard Doherty, research director of Envisioneering Group, told us. Google is responding to its OEMs' increasing demands for early access to platforms that have evolved into Ara.
In fact, this would "not affect Samsung, LG, Sony, HTC, Huawei, ZTE, Moto/Lenovo, Nokia one bit," he said, though it may prompt "Microsoft to up its modular game after the Nokia acquisition."
Project Ara's target today is smartphones, but it might serve as a prompt to designers to work on machine-to-machine types of devices in the future.
"Machine-to-machine uses will abound," Doherty said. A modular approach might come in handy for developing many devices for "experimentation, remote monitoring, or science."
I find Doherty's comments on M2M interesting. In fact, I believe where the massive power of the open hardware community is needed isn't really smartphones. Rather, it's in the area of M2M, a.k.a. the Internet of Things, where more developers are needed to come up with useful, fresh ideas.
The same goes for platforms for designing wearable devices. For those, we already have good reference designs, like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Freescale's WaRP platform, and Qualcomm's Toq. But a modular approach such as Project Ara would certainly level the playing field.
Google says it is not pitching its modular smartphone platform to geeks. Eremenko told Time that the company wants people who have never even used the Internet to get comfortable with the prospect of buying and using an Ara phone. "The alpaca farmer in Peru who might not even have a feature phone today" would be a typical customer.
I don't believe it a bit.
It isn't clear how many modular blocks will be available for developers at the first Ara Developers' Conference. Doherty said there will be a few, but "it could easily be glued by third parties."
One more thing to consider before embracing Project Ara is "misuse of the blocks" of the modular smartphone platform, he said. Those blocks could be used for "mayhem or terrorism."
Doherty isn't exaggerating. Five years ago, he was a keynoter at a Washington conference convened by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on the misuse of consumer electronics. "It was a very sobering session."
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times