Why Did Google Kill Project ARA?
Is modular smartphone design in the age of ‘right to repair’ the answer to our sustainability woes?
Project ARA. A modular smartphone designed and developed by a small, lean team at Google X (Now simply known as X), had a bold vision. The tile-based phone would allow users to swap out old components, for newer ones. Want to upgrade your processor? Install the latest Snapdragon variant. Want to add an additional speaker for more musical oomph? Drop the camera. The spirit of true customization and choice for the consumer. All done with a simple push and click, neatly bundled up, in a “physical manifestation of one's needs and interests.”
The potential was there for disruptive innovation. A unique user experience like nothing before.
“Just as it’s our job to push the envelope on what’s feasible, we must also be tuned in and sensitive to opportunities that feel magical and unexpected for the user. It’s not a frame that holds modules, it’s the physical manifestation of ones needs and interests.” — Nick Cronan and Josh Morenstein
The concept itself was rather beautiful, even if it did result in a phone that was slightly thicker and admittedly did have some shortcomings. But as a concept, it showed tremendous possibility. Could ARA have been a solution to the current throwaway nature of consumerism, to be replaced by “Reuse, recycle, reduce”? Could Project ARA, or a project of similar aspirations, be the answer to our sustainability woes?
Possibly. With no actual release to the public, and no market maturity to reference, it’s hard to say with any certainty. But it was a possibility, certainly, until Google cancelled the project in 2016. Can we look to other manufacturers that took inspiration from ARA that will continue this modular approach? Do consumers have the appetite for a phone that falls short in certain areas, but potentially makes up for it in sustainability?
Climate change is a (sustainable) design problem
We revealed positive environmental benefits related to the co-design element of Project Ara’s business model. Furthermore, we discovered the potential to increase the product life of smartphones — or at least of smartphone components. — From Phonebloks to Google Project Ara. A Case Study of the Application of Sustainable Mass Customization
Everyone on the planet faces probably the biggest design challenge ever. How can we minimise our impact on the world around us? Can we enjoy the advances of society, but in a way that’s more ecologically balanced? It depends on who you ask. We love technology. We seemingly can’t get enough of it — but this is undoubtedly having a detrimental impact on our environment.
Smartphone manufacturers that typically release a new phone, or two, have noticed a shift in consumer sentiment. You’re more likely to see marketing material that reflects the environmentalism of today. Claims of sustainability, and parts being made from entirely recycled materials, that sort of thing. But it should be pointed out that solutions so far are often solutions constrained by turnover and profit.
So what happened to ARA? Early reactions to were mixed to say the least.
The concept itself was sound and the benefits from an environmental and consumer standpoint were well-received. However, many questioned the lack of a working prototype, as well as production and development costs. Google had a lofty ambition to release the ARA in developing nations, but this was at odds with how much the device was likely to cost on release. Nothing had ever been done before on this scale, so it was likely to be expensive.
The final nail in the coffin however came when then Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh dismissed the project entirely. In an attempt to unify product offerings from Google, Project ARA was dropped, cited as being victim to Googles fragmented and confusing line-up at the time.
It’s a shame, and with more time, I do believe Google could have delivered a truly polished device with a unique selling point that was significantly, well, unique.
It’s no secret: we’re out to change the world. Fairphone puts people and the planet first. We care about human rights and worker well-being. We care about the climate and our planet’s delicate ecosystem. We care about designing longer-lasting products that are easier to repair. We care about reducing waste and making the most of what we already have. — Fairphone
Touted as being the “phone that cares for people and the planet”, the emphasis from Fairphone is to provide a “modular” design (albeit, in a limited fashion compared to the ARA) at an affordable price. Aesthetically, it has a fairly plain, generic look. An inoffensive black slab that is unlikely to get pulses racing. It shouldn’t be entirely dismissed however, it is an actual tangible product that you can own right now for around 400 euros.
Here we have a product from a relatively small, unknown company that could theoretically last an entire life time, such is the nature of being able to replace components.
By approaching our design from the inside out, we’ve made significant progress in addressing how long phones last, how people relate to them, and the product’s entire life cycle. — Fairphone
I truly admire what Fairphone are doing. Sadly though, I think it’s unlikely they’ll gain much traction, or any significant measure of market share, as individuals continue to be tempted from Apple and Samsung. But this is sustainable design, make no mistake — and hopefully the beginnings of many discussions within the design community around what sustainable design truly means.
So what’s the real tipping point? When would the consumer truly accept some form of modular design, rather than buying a new phone outright every 12/24 months?
Tim Cook takes to the stage for the latest Apple event. He promises it to be their best yet. “We’re so excited for you all to be here, to witness this monumental iPhone release. You’re going to love it.”
He puts the phone together, bit by bit on stage, and switches it on.