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

NEWS ANALYSIS: The modular design of Google's Ara smartphone probably won’t be as cheap as the hype would indicate, but it may save money by eschewing features you don’t want to pay for.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...