Google's Ara Phone Promises to Provide Exactly the Phone You Need

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-04-16

Google's Ara Phone Promises to Provide Exactly the Phone You Need

Google's announcement to developers that it would introduce the Ara, a new modular smartphone that would cost $50 in its most basic form has grabbed the blogosphere's attention in a huge way. There's a good reason. The idea of being able to swap out phone modules is incredibly cool for all of us geeks.

There are, however, good reasons such a phone might do well if it's delivered in something close to the form that Google told developers to expect. The idea is to create a basic chassis (or what some are calling an exoskeleton) that would hold the phone's modules together and provide the necessary data and power connections for the modules to function.

It's likely that there will be more than one such chassis design, perhaps several, in different sizes and capabilities. Some basic modules, such as the processor and memory module, would be required. There would also be modules for the battery and screen. But some modules would be optional, so the buyout could select different processors or cameras.

This is important because, in addition to being cool, it would let you tailor your company's phones to meet your specific needs. In fact, you could choose different modules for different jobs within your company. You might want to exclude cameras for your hardware development team, for example, but include them for the PR and marketing departments.

Likewise, your employees could swap out modules to meet their needs. Perhaps you have staff that will be traveling overseas and they need GSM radios in their phones. They would have them when they need them and then switch to Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) radios to work in parts of the United States where GSM coverage is spotty.

Perhaps, equally important, you would reduce the need to change phones every few years as technology improved. Suppose your carrier starts supporting Long Term Evolution (LTE), for example, and you can swap in an LTE radio module without replacing the entire phone.

The ability to swap and upgrade modules also could mean lower maintenance costs by allowing easy replacement of delicate components such as screens or items with high failure rates such as batteries. Instead of having to provide new phones for employees, you can just upgrade the phones they have.

But it's early yet, so there's plenty of time for the idea of a modular phone to get morphed into oblivion by the time it gets to market. The $50 phone could be a loss leader, for example, with profit coming from the modules, kind of like what Gillette did for years when it priced razors for less than it cost to make them.


Google's Ara Phone Promises to Provide Exactly the Phone You Need

Gillette earned profits by selling razor blades. Or it could be that the basic Ara is a phone that nobody would want, expect perhaps in the developing word.

It would seem that there will be a great temptation for Google (or whoever actually makes and sells the Ara phones) to raise the device's price to a much higher point while making consumers think they're getting the deal of the century. After all, Google knows exactly what each of us wants the most, and the ability to exactly configure a phone to meet our greatest desires could make them unbeatable in the marketplace.

For corporate customers, the Ara could be a godsend. No longer would your company have to buy phones with features you will never need without getting exactly the features that you want.

For corporate use, the Ara could effectively bring an end to the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon—at least for some companies, since you supposedly specify and get a mobile device that does exactly what you want and nothing else. Why put up with the loss of control over data and wireless resources that comes with all of those iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices? In some industries, this could work very well, especially for companies that currently issue aging recycled BlackBerrys because they need the security. Now those companies could get a security module for their phones.

But, of course, there's a potential downside, perhaps several downsides. The modules as Google has proposed them would be held in place with magnets. But suppose an employee decides they want to swap out the company-owned security module for a camera and take photos in the development lab? How would you ever find out?

Clearly, with a modular phone such as the Ara, there would need to be some way to enforce asset control over the basic phone and each installed or assigned module. There would also need to be a means of controlling what modules could be installed on specific phones. For example, you don't want to allow a camera module to be installed into the phone of an employee whose phone is used in sensitive areas, and you might want to prevent a module for recording sound on a phone of an employee who was going into a confidential staff meeting.

In concept, the idea of the Ara modular phone is great, but the actual phones need to be handled in a way that still makes sense and protects the company's assets.

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