Google Ready to Get Modular in Puerto Rico

The environment into which Google is today launching its Ara smartphone looks a lot different from when the device was first introduced in October 2013.

For one thing, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) no longer owns Motorola, the company that actually first introduced Ara. As a refresher, Ara was Motorola's project to build a new class of highly customizable, modular smartphones. Its aim was to create the endoskeleton of the phone and let developers fill this with all the key components, including application processors, keyboards, batteries, accelerometers and more. The idea was that consumers could upgrade their phone parts rather than the entire device. (See Moto Goes Modular.)

The project had Google all over it, though, and the Android maker took custody of it after selling Motorola to Lenovo Group Ltd. (Hong Kong: 992) in October last year. Now Google is announcing at a Project Ara Module Developers Conference today that Ara will make its official debut in Puerto Rico this year in a pilot with operators OpenMobile and Claro. Google plans to sell the devices from food-truck style stores and will have 20 to 30 Ara modules available at launch. Check out Google's promo video below.

What really makes the landscape different from in October 2013, however, is that -- at least in the US -- operators have shifted from offering heavy subsidies on smartphones for higher monthly prices to running leasing and bring-your-own device programs. With Ara, consumers could potentially keep their smartphones forever. In its razor/razor blade model, the cost of the phone will likely be small. It's adding to it that will get expensive.

For more on mobile devices, head to the dedicated smartphone content channel here on Light Reading.

If it catches on, the wireless operators' role in this modular world might come into question. On the one hand, it could be a good thing that wireless operators will not have to shell out big up-front subsidies, as they used to, but on the other, operators will no longer be able to count on subscribers upgrading every two years. I'm not really sure how operators see Ara, but they will probably be wondering how they can get a cut of the module upgrades? You can bet the idea of subsidized, on-contract modules has crossed their minds.

That could be one reason Google is starting its pilot in Puerto Rico, away from the US carrier dynamics. It says it's doing so because Puerto Rico is a mobile-first country with a diverse, competitive carrier landscape and is still under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) jurisdiction, which will help it work out its regulatory approach. And, it says, it's a free trade zone, which will help it import modules from developers worldwide.

It's too soon to tell whether Ara catches on with more than just hobbyists and those that like to tinker, but Google's pilot will test the waters. Everybody loves Lego, but whether they want their phones to behave in the same way is the first question that needs answering.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Bill Van 1/15/2015 | 11:08:09 PM
Who wants Ara? Then who wants choice? I see project Ara as a bit ahead of its time.  Sure it will focus on the very low end market at first.  But today, we all see what Google and even HTC is doing today.  Removing functionality and upgrades out of the OS and into the app store.

Want to upgrade any part of your core apps on a regular basis? No problem, head to the app store.  Want to upgrade your 4 - 8 core processor no problem. Send me the new 10 core Ara.

Ask yourself do you want plug and play iOS Car Play and/or  Android Auto on your car's dash?  No problem we have cheap modules for that!       
MordyK 1/15/2015 | 3:03:22 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? I see this as very similar to the launch of the original iPhone in 07'. While many people saw it for what it was, a minority saw it for what it can be and built apps that extended the iPhone beyond even what the guys at Apple which spent years building it ever imagined and contributed to its cult-like success.

I guess its a question of vision. Time will tell...
MordyK 1/15/2015 | 11:31:01 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? The FDA requirement is an issue, but if sandboxed its no different than any other independent glucose meters.

I can't recall where it was, but about a year ago I read an article about how the FDA is developing a new framework to speed up evaluation and approval of mobile health applications and hardware. If that's true and the hardware is similar in fucntion to independent devices, the FDA barrier shouldn't be beyond the pale.

Application combinations, for example combining a glucose meter directly with the pump and using the cloud to automatically decide how much insulin to provide will require a full FDA diligence and a fast-paced FDA response.

This is among the reasons why I think ARA will take time to permeate mindshare with life changing liefstyle stories, but after surmounting and dealing with these types of barriers I think it shows the future.

For all us forber Blackberry guys out there, Imagine being able to buy a screen module With Tactus tecnologies liquid button keyboards? We would no longer be pinning for that great physical keyboard, or waiting to find an OEM with good phone thathas the tech.

What's more. The data of how people are customizing phones can highlight certain combinations that can get OEM's to create interesting single device phones that they didn't see a market for previously, akin to how the investor market changed with Kickstarter.
brooks7 1/15/2015 | 11:11:45 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Before you get all excited Mordy....

Of course the Glucose Meter will have to be approved by the FDA with every possible hardware and software configuration possible.


KBode 1/15/2015 | 11:06:46 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Yeah I'm completely torn on whether this can work. Again I think if they come out swinging with a very sexy advertising campaign that intergrate pokemon-esque gamification (gotta collect 'em all if you want to be cool) they could have a phenomenon on their hands. As MordyK notes, the idea of modular pieces that involve physical add ons (physical buttons, blood sugar tests) is really very interesting...also probably ads in an entirely new layer of bugs and regulatory obligations, though.
thebulk 1/15/2015 | 10:44:28 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? I have no doubt that the marketing behind this phone will be strong, and it will likely see a lot of early success, but I would not count on it long term.
MordyK 1/15/2015 | 10:06:58 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? This guy built a glucose meter module for Ara. Imagine the value of this for every diabetic out there if this were seamlessly integrated with the pump? combine that with thefact the health insurance pays for glucose meters and this becomes no different than geting a smartphone with GPS and PDA inluded.

Find similar use cases for other modules that now require standalone devices and I think it can be a very interesting market.

As was the case with the iPhone, this needs to be explained well so the opportunity and value is understood IMHO.

I'm so excited about this that I almost feel like I work for ARA's marketing team :)
sarahthomas1011 1/15/2015 | 10:00:54 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Also depends on how hard it is to actually tinker with. If you just pop out a module and add a new one, it could become as popular as those decals in crocs (bad analogy?). But, if it's that easy to pop in and out, I could envision the phone breaking into dozens of pieces anytime you drop it, which is a whole other issue...
sarahthomas1011 1/15/2015 | 9:58:37 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Right, but I meant the 50 states...not a territory of the US that I won't be in anytime soon, even though it sounds so amazing right now.
KBode 1/15/2015 | 9:33:47 AM
Re: Who wants an Ara? I think it's probably too niche of an idea to catch on unless the marketing message is somehow irresistable. Most just want their device to work. I'd agree that it's a minority that wants to tinker.
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