We're missing the point on the Google Project Ara story. The story is not so much about Project Ara or the Lego smartphone or the maker movement.
It's about what Paul Eremenko, head of Project Ara, mentioned briefly during his presentation at the Project Ara Developer Conference April 15. It's about the increasing standardization of electronics design and how it will impact the way we conceive, design, and build many different systems in the coming years.
As Eremenko pointed out, open-source software has enabled the Android platform and the vast ecosystem of developers and applications that have created technologies that never would have been created under the old, closed, not-invented-here model. This -- at least, some degree of it -- must come down to hardware.
And indeed, it has, in fits and starts. The pages of electronics design history are filled with examples of proprietary interfaces that flowered into standards as ICs or modules and now finally into IP blocks that you can buy from any number of IP or EDA vendors. Innovation happens around those blocks at the system level, where engineering teams don't have to reinvent the wheel. Add to that a backbone like MIPI Unipro, and that world gets a lot more interesting quickly in the context of Project Ara.
Eremenko called the ecosystem around smartphone development -- smartcard readers or other kinds of sensor-based devices -- "anemic" at around 7-8% of the overall value of the smartphone ecosystem. Why? "The morphology of the device doesn't stay constant." Instead, phone designs change constantly. Around them, we have a "Christmas tree" effect of things that hang off the smartphone (both wired and wireless), each of which requires its own power source.
Consumers really could care less about Project Ara. This isn't about empowering individuals to design and cobble together their own phones. This is about unshackling developers to enable that ecosystem to expand beyond 7-8%. In the process, it will change our notions of what a mobile device is, and it will change various balances of power. For example, component vendors could become handset vendors, and vice versa. (Junko Yoshida touched on this in her her Project Ara analysis recently).
If you consider the history of the electronics industry, its evolution is not unlike that of the railroads, firearms manufacturers, or automakers. At early stages in their development, all those industries had very few standards as companies fought to ensure their inventions won the day. In the case of early American railroads, determining track gauge was more serendipitous. No one anticipated a massive network of linked rails and interchangeable stock, because rail was initially used to convey goods from waterways, which were the dominant transport mode. Therefore, a short track could be any gauge its owner selected.
Eventually, business, consumer, and safety considerations forced these growing industries to standardize on rail gauge, munitions caliber, and so on, so they could expand markets and focus their attention on more profitable pursuits.
How will mobile devices interact with the world in 15-20 years beyond how they interact now through MEMS, audio, and image sensors? I have no idea, but applications, functionality, and consumers will benefit hugely from the kinds of standardization that Project Ara suggests.
Why? If you had asked me 20 years ago, I never would have imagined I'd be using my cellphone one day to dictate "blog posts" into a text-writing "app" that I could access from various devices through something called "the cloud." And if I had envisioned that, you would have suggested I seek professional help.
— Brian Fuller has been a reporter, editor, and writer for nearly 30 years. Now editor-in-chief and blogger at Cadence, he has spent much of his career covering the electronics industry, serving as editor-in-chief of EE Times and EBN and as editorial director with UBM.