Why Did Google Kill Project ARA?

Is modular smartphone design in the age of ‘right to repair’ the answer to our sustainability woes?

Chris Kernaghan
Mar 11 · 5 min read
A collection of ARA modular tiles
A collection of ARA modular tiles
Source: Wired

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.

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

An ARA complete, with all tiles intact
An ARA complete, with all tiles intact
Source: Dezeen

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.

Source: It’s that nice

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.

The Fairphone

The Fairphone, shown with all its different parts
The Fairphone, shown with all its different parts
Source: TechCrunch

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

A Fairphone employee with a makeshift prototype
A Fairphone employee with a makeshift prototype
Source: 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.

Chris is a Lead UX Designer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Please feel free to wander over to his YouTube channel and join him in discussing design from around the world.

Geek Culture

Proud to geek out.

Sign up for Geek Culture Hits

By Geek Culture

Subscribe to receive top 10 most read stories of Geek Culture — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Chris Kernaghan

Written by

Lead UX Designer based in Belfast. I write about design, gaming and what I’ve learned on planet Earth so far. Contact me — chris@feedme.design

Geek Culture

A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

Chris Kernaghan

Written by

Lead UX Designer based in Belfast. I write about design, gaming and what I’ve learned on planet Earth so far. Contact me — chris@feedme.design

Geek Culture

A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store