Technology / Google

The Building Blocks of the Future: Google Presents the Modular Smartphone

On January 14,  at the second Project Ara Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, Google developers proposed a plan for the future of sustainable technology. The tech giant announced the impending release and production of Spiral 3, an improved version of Spiral 1 that was the firm’s first attempt at a modular phone. With estimates that 2015 will see almost 2 billion smartphone users worldwide, tech companies are searching for the “next big thing” to further their influence in the rapidly growing market.

Described as a “Lego-like” smartphone, the Ara device is extremely customizable with block-like pieces that can easily be removed or replaced by customers. The phone is similar to Dutch designer Dave Hakkens’ Phonebloks, an idea that went viral on several social media outlets last year, but lacked the follow-through and funding necessary for mass production. Instead, the website has now become a medium through which supporters of a modular smartphone can exchange ideas and opinions.

The modular phone concept has received both significant praise and criticism. Many applaud the model for its low price – sources say the basic Ara will begin at $50 – and for its sustainability. With the ever-increasing disposability of goods, and only an 11% recycling rate, The Electronics Take Back Coalition concluded that “some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste”.

A modular phone allows customers to replace the broken “block” rather than have to dispose of the entire device, significantly reducing e-waste. According to DoSomething.org, 80-85% of electronic waste is not recycled, but instead disposed of in landfills and incinerators. The waste makes up only 2% of landfills but accounts for 70% of toxicity in the environment. Large amounts of waste are also illegally exported to India, Africa, and Asia, ending up in scrap yards where severely underpaid workers are forced to extract the valuable metals from the discarded objects. This rapidly growing waste stream could easily be quelled with the introduction of Project Ara.

Criticism began during the first Project Ara Conference, when Spiral 1 would not turn on for the audience. Others have talked about the below-average battery life. For this reason, Google has decided to only release the Ara pilot device in Puerto Rico, a smaller-scale setting compared to a full-sized international release.

When questions arose as to the decision to use Puerto Rico as the testing site, developers at Google explained that the island, a United States commonwealth, has several desirable qualities that make it an ideal location for the test-run of their newest device – the primary reason being the immense “mobile penetration” of the island. According to data sources, about 75% of the island receives primary access to the Internet from phones rather than computers. Moreover, the commonwealth status allows Google to technically operate in the United States while still benefitting from Puerto Rico’s free trade zones. These zones easily enable Google to import pieces for the device from all over the world for a lower cost than importing from the continental United States. The other benefit of testing in Puerto Rico is the diversity of cellular service providers; there are several American staples such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, as well as Latin American carriers like Claro. The University of Puerto Rico has also registered its 11 campus locations to ATAP Multi-University Research, a program that will allow Google to access laboratories and professors with ease and flexibility.

Puerto Rican service providers are thrilled to be involved with Project Ara’s pilot run. Josué González, president of Open Mobile, one of the most popular carriers on the island, said, “we are very proud that Google and Project Ara have selected us to test run their pilot. This is, without a doubt, excellent news for our clients and for all of Puerto Rico, since we will be the first in the world to experience this new platform of the future.”

Google announced they would be selling the phone in travelling vans, similar to the recently popular food truck model. They hope this strategy will make people feel more comfortable buying the product, and help them understand the flexible nature of its design. The smartphone will also be available online. As for the production of the device, Google already has several developers working on chips and other elements of the phone. Spiral 3 is still in the process of being produced and is missing test-runs before its release. The company said it would release 30-50 models in late 2015.

The release of Project Ara marks a revolutionary moment in technological history. If the product is successful, this habitually consistent market will experience its first major change since the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007. Spiral 3 could change the conceptual notion of a smart device.