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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sarahthomas1011 1/14/2015 | 2:12:26 PM
Who wants an Ara? I think this is a really cool innovation, however, I don't see it getting much traction. Do you really want that much input int your phone? It'd be nice to swap in batteries or improve the camera, but that's a lot of tinkering for the average person.
MordyK 1/14/2015 | 3:09:33 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? You make a good point about the differing requirements of our alter ego versus our true personalities, whereby our alter ego's like choice but most of us are happy to work within existing boundaries.

That said my take on this is a bit different.

Whilst it will take a significant amount of time for people to start getting into this, there are sub-segmnets of the customer base which could get real excited real quick.

Take for example professional and even amateur photographers. These guys spend godless amounts of money on personalizing their SLR cameras with countless accesories, yet when it comes to smartphones their options are extremely limited. Why wouldn't that translate?

Doctors and first responders as well as aid workers or red cross volunteers can begin to have portable medical offices for minimal costs.

Patients with ever growing customised health needs can in effect "prescription-ize" their devices with modules targeted toward their particular needs. These patients are especially succeptible to a modular approach as they are currently weighed down with disparate devices, as many of us were prior to teh smartphone, with our PDA's, GOS, phone, pager, etc.

On the health front you can reach out to Dr. Topol @ Scripps who's probabaly the leading authority in mobile medical opportunities.

Retail workers can scan barcodes with a barcode module and a store app combo, instead of using dedicated devices.

Fitness people can get a more seamless and customised capability through a more modular system. These people are already spending on a diverse array of fitness gadgets.

The list goes on, but it shows that when you break down the demographics with the right story, suddently a modular system becomes highly attractive to a very large ser base. That said it will take real time for people to learn and understand the possibilities, but ads like those lifestyle story ads from the original iPhone launch can go a long way.

A modular system gets really attractive when one looks at the connected home and wearbles. This is an environement where Apple's approach of one size fits all is ill suited and customization is a basic requirement that can really take off.
sarahthomas1011 1/14/2015 | 4:20:36 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? That is a really good analysis, Mordy! And, I suppose not much different than why the app store does well on the software side of things. As professional devices, the modules make a lot of sense. I still the concept will have to be marketed well to communicate that, and pricing will be important too, of course. Hope it comes to the US!
MordyK 1/14/2015 | 4:32:28 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Your analogy of the ApptStore is prescient. I had to retype the entire comment as it got lost and I missed a paragraph that touched on the topic so here it is:

It will have to be marketed as lifestyle impact stories akin to those Apple used for the launch of the new iPhone, where it highlighted apps and their use cases.

I'm no marketing whiz but I think Aple proved that the approach works wonders :)

Pricing is always an important factor, although the medical use case might enable insuarnce companies to subsidize modules. Other subsidy, pay-per-use, subscription, service subsidized (Square is an example) or other original models from various sources might also come to play an interesting role.
KBode 1/14/2015 | 5:41:54 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Yeah I tend to think it's just going to be too confusing for most users who just want their phone to WORK. Maybe if there's some gamification involved in the marketing whereby they make it a status symbol to have the best modifications for your device?
brooks7 1/14/2015 | 9:14:05 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? Sarah,

Puerto Rico is the US....



thebulk 1/14/2015 | 11:31:44 PM
Re: Who wants an Ara? @KBode, 

I am sure the idea of premium moduals has been floated and there wil be some that get priced way out of reach for most, but I still wonder how much the average user will want to tinker with their phone to update it. I will be interested to see if this catches on. 
thebulk 1/14/2015 | 11:33:08 PM
Makers I would also be interested to see how the maker / hacker / DIY communities take to this and start either making their own moduals or modifying the phones to do new things they were not designed for. 
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.
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.
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