Google’s Modular Phone: Another Neat Trinket or a Global Revolution?

Google's Modular Phone
Google's Project Ara attempts to make environmentalism modular.

Is Google’s Project Ara a Revolution in Non-Pollution or Too Good to Be True?

ara2photo: Maurizio Pesce cc

While I’ve been waiting patiently for hoverboards to happen, it dawns on me that I haven’t been too impressed by technology lately. Sure, I still encounter the odd techno-blurb warranting a lazily huffed “huh…,” but more often than not I’m left feeling like most people after watching Everybody Loves Raymond – bored and wanting the last half-hour of my life back. Imagine my surprise then to find myself giddy like a schoolboy after learning of Google’s plans to launch the first modular smartphone, dubbed “Project Ara,” later this year via food vendor-like trucks on the streets of Puerto Rico. No, I’m not making this up.

The move is a market pilot in what Google is betting will be a game-changer in the fight to reduce electronic waste as well as upgrade our mobile phones on an “as needed” basis.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “modular phone,” picture a phone made of legos. Let’s say your lego phone gets outdated and you want to get a new one. Stop right there. Rather than buy a completely new lego phone you can take off old lego parts and swap them for newer, shinier lego parts. But it gets even better – these new lego parts can do amazing things like check your blood glucose levels, swipe credit cards, and even give you nightvision. Ideally this reduces the amount of old and broken non-lego phones that end up in scrap heaps in places like China and India.



Though not the first to envision the concept, Project Ara stemmed from the collaboration of Dutch Environmentalist Dave Hakkens via his grad project “Phonebloks,” and former Google subsidiary Motorola. Last year, Google sold Motorola to Lenovo but not before retaining the project team working on the new phone. Let’s just say Google didn’t exactly make money on the transaction. At least they haven’t yet.

Hatched first and foremost by Hakkens as a solution to the rising global problem of e-waste (think old circuit boards and cracked monitors), Project Ara is well-positioned to give major manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and HTC a run for their money.

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araphoto: Maurizio Pesce cc

Like its open-source Android software, Google intends for the device to have a large developer “ecosystem.” Paul Eremenko, director of Project Ara, has stated that the only part made by Google would be a metal “endoskeleton” frame containing the circuitry to connect the slots in which the various modules would slip into.

These modules would be created by various major developers as well as smaller independent developers using Google’s open-source software kit, MDK. In a panel interview with Engadget, Eremenko noted that while conforming to Google’s MDK software will be mandatory for developers, selling through Google’s marketplace will not be.

Perhaps most beneficial to Google’s planned e-waste reduction is the cost of the phone. With plans to offer the basic starter kit with a material cost of $50, Google has expressed its hopes that Ara will be a phone not just for the 1 billion smartphone users around the world, but also the 5 billion “feature phone” users in less affluent areas (think push-button flip phones circa 2003).


Will the Modular Phone Work?

As someone who’s owned three phones over the course of 14 years, I’m admittedly not the target demographic of Google’s new endeavor. But despite their noble efforts regarding e-waste reduction, I can’t help but think of one hiccup in Google’s plan:

First off, the thinking behind e-waste reduction is that with a modular phone, consumers will circumvent planned obsolescence by purchasing a new component as needed rather than a new phone every two years. The problem with this is that it ignores how prolific our consumer culture really is. The United States produces more e-waste per person than any other country by a good margin (yes, we beat China). With a “latest and greatest” routine permeated heavily into our daily lives, those individual slide-in modules represent just another way to flaunt our tech-savvy purchasing power to those around us.


9263497084_624ab8aa2e_kphoto: Basel Action Network cc

With companies like Toshiba, Nike, Sennheiser, and countless independent developers regularly releasing new and improved versions of their modules, buying options suddenly grow exponentially. Add that to an economy with the highest purchasing power on the planet and e-waste stays right where it is. A modular setup might keep us from buying a new phone every two years, but what good is that if we’re chucking an old module for a better one every two months?

To be fair, Google has stated that it has plans for a buy-back option for modules, much in the same fashion Gamestop buys used video games. But how appealing are used module bargain bins going to be for American consumers? If we treat old modules at all like we treat old phones now, I can’t imagine outdated components will be staying in the country.*


Then Again…

It’s entirely possible I’m emphasizing the wrong demographic. Sure, the 1 billion smartphone users most likely to replace unwanted modules might continue to produce e-waste unhindered, but what about those 5 billion feature phone users Google is targeting? The ones responsible for Google’s target of $50 in material cost? This is where Google and Phonebloks might win after all.

Despite the prevalence of the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, 46% of American cell phones are still feature phones according to the Pew Research Center. In other less developed countries, feature phones still make up the vast majority of cellphones. This demographic is comprised of individuals that either don’t care about phone capability or are unable to purchase a smartphone due to monetary constraints – likely the sweet spot demographic Hakkens had in mind. A modular phone in their hands would only require replacement modules as they are required for functionality. Whether this will account for enough e-waste reduction to matter will have to be seen.

Unless I’m completely wrong (which happened once), my guess is that Google will have to find a compromise between e-waste reduction and modular shock and awe. Do they rise to the call of environmental champions or do they risk their fundamentals in the name of ever-improving technological capability? It’s a tough question, but my guess is they won’t be able to have their cake and eat it too.

*Then again, cyborg hipsters in 2050 might go crazy for that vintage 2016 sound.


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