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.
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