There are quite a few challengers to Google Android out there, but they’re just operating system challenges. Technically that’s old school, as every major operating system on the planet has been working towards a unified user experience since the introduction of the original iconic iPhone. Those changes have done some pretty amazing things too, with perhaps the most stunning of those being developments with UNIX and smartphones.
The Ubuntu Edge phone raised an enormous amount of money through their crowd funding effort, raising more than £8.2mln in just 30 days (). The developers promise 40,000 units of a new phone and OS that supports pretty much everything, and will take mobile to a new area, without the closed ecosystems of Apple and Microsoft, or the identity ownership and ad revenue system Google uses to promote Android. However, despite the great things this phone should be able to do, that news is yesterday. Today’s news is once more on Google.
In fact, it’s not just Google, but rather their Advanced Technology And Products (ATAP) group, which has created something know as Project Ara. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the premise is actually simple, and genius in its simplicity. Basically, it’s a modular phone, rather than a modular operating system. In other words, it’s the only part of Motorola that wasn’t sold off by Google when they transferred the Motorola IP to Lenovo. What that means to the world, and in particular the mobile world, is interesting, because Google has publicly maintained that they have no intention of entering the smartphone market as a device manufacturer – yet they are in the process of designing a smartphone that will turn the entire industry on its head.
Project Ara isn’t just Google though. They’re working closely with Toshiba, in lieu of the other smartphone manufacturers they’ve courted in the past like HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung. They will be producing a set of modular chips that quite literally let users build and create their own phones. This is sure to make waves, both with users and with mobile manufacturers. Here’s why:
1. Home Users: Once the project is finalised, home users will be able to create their own smartphones. If you want a phone without a camera, for those folks who work in low-level positions in places like the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), then you can have a phone that won’t be able to snap photos. Just leave your camera module at home or in the locker. Likewise, if you prefer a bigger camera – for the selfie lover in you, then you can have that too. Live in a rural area and want to get better connectivity? No problem, get an antennae booster and you’ll have better signal reception. Alternatively, if you are constantly ripping through your battery life, then all you have to do is snap in a bigger battery pack. Sure, it’s absolutely ugly at the moment, but that’s guaranteed to change over time – and there will no doubt be components that help others build up their phones and such to make them look better (Gucci anyone?).
2. Smartphone Manufacturers: Manufacturers will be able to release upgrades a few at a time, rather than all at once. What this means to developers is that they can update or upgrade a component with a much lower cost barrier to entry. While it might seem like mobile manufacturers would jump on this, it’s actually not the case. What will happen instead is that component manufacturers will take over, which is part of the reason Google is working with Toshiba. Google will have an operating system that powers the most modern and versatile devices on the market – essentially doing away with the old concept of planned obsolescence, where a device is manufactured to be unusable or even fail after a set period of time. That means users can just upgrade their phones a piece or two at a time – just like one might upgrade the processor, fan, or memory of a standard computer.
3. Hardware Manufacturers: Generally speaking, most people have no idea who made their hardware, outside of perhaps knowing about Intel, or Snapdragon processors. The rest is just a mix that’s usually poorly marketed and advertised – as end users have little or no say in what gets put into their mobiles. This will change with Project Ara, as hardware manufacturers will start being more known. In fact, there is likely to be a big shift as computers move towards this truly mobile and modular concept too (imagine a laptop that can be 100% upgraded). Manufacturers will likely build stronger relationships with flagship companies like Samsung and HTC, but they will also have the opportunity to make their own changes and market their own components. Just like you can currently swap out a computer power supply or upgrade the processor, you’ll be able to upgrade and swap out smartphone components too.
Of course, that’s mostly the silver lining of this new mobile cloud. The fact is that it will also significantly increase phone theft issues, as a phone thief can just break a phone down into components – not even worrying about the actual phone itself. That’s something no one has talked much about yet, and while it is no doubt on the radar somewhere in the recesses of the Googleplex, it will be years before we see this technology in a usable format where it’s suitable for mainstream consumption (or phone thieves start capitalising on and misusing it). Like every other Google project, it could also be scrapped or shelved too. Only time will tell.