NEW BLOG: Last week’s news that Motorola is investigating the potential of modular smartphones led to a few raised eyebrows, and a loud chorus of “seen it all before”.
Certainly the idea behind the Ara project is not new. In many ways, the concept that a single device can be modified to suit specific user needs, to update the hardware, or to otherwise customise it, is an appealing one.
Simply pointing to the failure of earlier efforts is unfair on the latest work. After all, other failed efforts in the mobile space have spawned more successful follow-ons, as technology has developed, user tastes matured, and the original proposition was tweaked to reflect this.
The big difference is that modular devices now have a big-name backer – Motorola – which itself has heavyweight support in the shape of parent Google.
Google is not averse to funding long-term research projects which do not come to fruition, and if they do, take some time to deliver results.
Look at Android itself: following its acquisition of Andy Rubin’s company in 2005, it was not until 2008 that the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1 reached the market, and even then it took some years before Android displaced Symbian as the most popular mass-market smartphone platform.
And Google also has a track-record of funding projects where it is not immediately clear where the payback comes from.
Certainly, there have been some question marks over its stewardship of Motorola, specifically in terms of how it sees the vendor’s position, and how it will balance this with the needs of the wider Android device maker ecosystem.
So far, it has done little to bolster Motorola’s potential as a volume player. The highly-regarded Moto X, for example, has seen a limited geographic release, and the rest of the vendor’s portfolio is hardly setting the world alight (the anticipated Moto G notwithstanding).
But Motorola does, perhaps, have an interesting role as a unit with which Google can disrupt the device hardware market.
Despite all its woes as a vendor, Motorola’s engineering expertise seems at least to some degree to have survived through its years in the wilderness. Coupling this with a wider brief to explore areas that other vendors may shy away from, there are some interesting possibilities for the unit.
But there are also numerous issues with such a strategy. From Google’s standpoint, despite numerous cost-saving efforts Motorola is a costly beast to keep running, and at the moment is heavily loss-making. Using the unit as a glorified R&D unit alone is unlikely to prove appealing in the long-run.
And then there is the issue of the wider Android device community. So far, despite concern that Motorola could prove to be a threat, there has been little evidence to Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, ZTE, and numerous others that Google ownership has changed the status quo.
And indeed, LG has again been picked as the vendor for the latest Nexus smartphone (Nexus 5), over Google’s own in-house devices unit.
But, having largely seen control of their software platforms handed over to Google, the Android device vendors are unlikely to be especially enamoured of the idea that the search giant is now dedicating its time to disrupting the hardware business – a tough enough market without a deep-pocketed outsider sticking its spanner in the works.
At least for the short term, Project Ara seems to be little more than an interesting R&D project for Motorola, of the kind that most ambitious device makers would like to undertake. But with Google lurking in the background, it is certainly something to keep an eye on.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.