Project Ara is one of the first significant signs of Google doing with Motorola what many hoped it would: stimulating smartphone innovation. It is well-known that smartphone hardware innovation is currently at a plateau, with successive flagship devices offering evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, hardware upgrades. So Strategy Analytics welcomes any initiative designed to inject some creativity and lateral thinking into the smartphone design process.

Google is not afraid of innovation for the sake of innovation, with little apparent regard for latent market demand, and it’s not clear what the existing demand for a modular smartphone is. But among the potential benefits of such a device are: a possible cost-saving over the life of the device, with users having the option of incrementally upgrading a module, such as the app processor, instead of buying a whole new device, and the consequent ecological advantage of devices being discarded less often. There may also be enthusiasm in the operator/retailer channels and the component industry for this new commercial opportunity.

However, there remain many question-marks about this concept. The end-user market would appear to be limited, initially at least, to early adopters and hobbyists, with the mass-market likely to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” view on messing around with components, especially if the initial cost of such a device is greater than that of an equivalent one with integrated components, as seems likely. Then there is the matter of performance - how much of a performance hit will the whole system take by not having all its components integrated into one circuit-board, and is there even an industry-standard connector that all component-makers and hardware-vendors can use? If not, can Google develop one? There is also the matter of durability - what happens if you drop this device and what about dust-proofing? Lastly there is the well-established matter of fragmentation. Any current issues of this sort will surely be magnified significantly by such an ‘open’ hardware platform.

So we applaud Google for using its Motorola acquisition to drive smartphone innovation, and hope initiatives such as this encourage lateral-thinking in all parts of the smartphone design and manufacturing chain. But at this stage, and for the mid-term future, we see Project Ara as just that - a project - with niche commercial appeal.