The Unbundling of the Phone

Google is trying to do for hardware what the App Store did for software.
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For years, sustainability and consumer advocates alike have criticized the electronics industry for the so-called "bundled" nature of our devices: If your phone's speakers start making weird noises, you're just going to have to replace the whole darn thing. Components are glued, wired, soldered, and screwed together in ways that makes replacing any one a hassle.

But this week, Google is showcasing a different vision for the future: Project Ara, an effort to create a phone whose components could just snap in and out, replaced when one breaks or a better version becomes available. At a developer conference in Santa Clara, California, Google's Advanced Technologies and Products group (ATAP) is prepping hardware manufacturers so that they can begin to work on components for when Project Ara releases its first "endoskeleton" in, it hopes, about a year. According to The Verge, that endoskeleton will serve as "as the basic core of a phone. The camera, screen, and any other feature that you'd traditionally associate with a smartphone would exist only as a modular tile—even the processor and the power jack would be removable."

Today, the components that appear in any given device are decided via a negotiation between, say, Samsung and "original equipment manufacturers," known as OEMs. As The Verge explains:

When a component maker, say a camera company or a battery company, wants to get its part into a smartphone, it needs to convince both the factory and the actual smartphone company to include it. But if they can sell the part directly to the consumer — with the help of Ara's design tools to build the module and Google's help to market it — then the Ara ecoystem wouldn’t need giant manufacturers like Foxconn, Pegatron, or even Samsung and HTC to build Android phones. "We want to empower the consumer to make those decisions," Eremenko says, "rather than having the component developer go through an OEM to do that."

According to Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, a group that helps people repair their electronics, if Project Ara comes to fruition, it will be a big boon to consumers. "People are eager for more options. They want phones that aren't limited to a small amount of storage. They want to be able to fix it when it breaks."

"Hardware innovation has been constrained by the interfaces available on phones," he adds. "You couldn't really build a tricorder attachment for an iPhone—and if you did, Apple might reject it. With Ara, the phone is a platform rather than an evolutionary dead end. What if Ara does for hardware what the App Store did for software?"

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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