By Taylor Martin | February 27, 2014 4:05 PM
If you look back just a few years in the timeline of modern smartphones, we’ve come a tremendous distance.
To think the HTC ThunderBolt was, at one time, innovative and groundbreaking is pretty humorous these days. It’s difficult to remember that the original Motorola DROID was an impressive piece of kit and that 3G data speeds were normal just three, short years ago.
Design, specifications, and especially software have all matured in a way few of us would have thought possible at the time. And it’s spoiled us to the point that we’re displeased with the announcement of a fifth-generation smartphone with a 5.1-inch 1080p display, 2.5GHz quad-core CPU, 2GB RAM, 16-megapixel camera, and a battery over twice the size of phones from just two years ago.
It sounds a bit ludicrous. And in some ways, it is, but it’s also sort of justified.
Take laptops for example. We expect to buy a new computer every three or four years. We also expect there to be a better, more powerful and efficient model laptop to release just a few weeks after we slap several hundred dollars – or several thousand for MacBook buyers – down for the then-best laptop money can buy.
Why is that okay? Why to we tend to put up little fuss over that? Because the gains from the improvements in the new model are so small for the vast majority of users that’s it not worth worrying over. A small bump in CPU clock speed isn’t going to help you read BuzzFeed lists any faster or more efficiently. And unless you’re a gamer, GPU enhancements aren’t going to drastically improve your computer’s day to day performance.
But this subject is thicker than that. If you’re not totally satisfied with what’s in your computer, you can make modifications to help stave the obsolescence of your investment. Upgrading the RAM, storage, and in some cases, video and graphic cards can help breathe a little extra life into your computer, without breaking the bank on a brand new computer. (However, that’s becoming less true with the popularization and ever-slimming nature of laptops.)
That’s where the computer and smartphone markets diverge quite a bit. If you’re unsatisfied with all the options on the shelf when buying a computer, you can, within reason, upgrade a model after purchase.
This isn’t so with smartphones.
Yes, the increasingly slim upgrades each year are a little disappointing – only because we’ve been trained to expect the shock and awe experience every time a company releases anything new. But that had an expiration date on it since day one.
That’s only half the picture, though.
No one smartphone has it all, and no manufacturer has nailed down making the perfect smartphone. Samsung is great at doing certain things, HTC is great at other things, and other OEMs have better experience in different categories of design, hardware, and even software.
More often than not, some of the best smartphones on the market are missing something that someone, somewhere, wants. The Galaxy S 5 doesn’t have optical image stabilization. The Moto X is missing Qi wireless charging. The Moto G doesn’t have NFC. And so on.
And so we’ve come to fantasize a phone with the best hardware, mixed with a hodgepodge of specifications from other smartphones, and maybe the camera technology Nokia’s popular PureView handsets.
The biggest disappointment for us nerds, by a fair margin, is the lack of hardware customization in smartphones. That’s why rumors of Motorola’s customizable smartphone was so alluring and frequently in headlines. Unfortunately, we learned with the Moto X that the extent of the customization was only in aesthetics. But it was a start.
We later learned hardware customization was on the table for Motorola under the codename Project Ara.
The idea is one many of us are all familiar with now: a modular phone which can be easily upgraded, piece by piece, to become the exact hardware setup you want.
Now that Project Ara, once part of Motorola’s Advanced Technologie’s group, is now a Google asset, we’ve seen the project come to life. Yesterday, we caught wind of the project’s first dev conference in mid-April. It’s said to be introducing a Module Developers’ Kit, so third-party manufacturers can begin building their own custom modules for the base frame.
Things are about to get real for Project Ara, and we couldn’t be more excited.
From the very first word of Project Ara, however, we’ve had concerns over arguably the largest make-or-break aspect of the entire project: price.
Other manufacturers have tried the customizable smartphone hardware concept before, only to fail because the cost of manufacturing, incredibly high pricing of handsets, and other financially-driven problems. Synapse-Phones, a Germany startup created in September 2010, went belly-up just months later – January 2011.
But things for Project Ara seem far more promising than any past ventures into the practically uncharted modular smartphone territory. Primarily, it’s backed by Google, a company no stranger to new technologies and R&D. Secondly, Google seems to have figured out the pricing conundrum.
Yesterday, TIME Tech covered Project Ara in great detail. In the midst of that piece, a pricing target for the base model was revealed: a measly $50.
Of course, this base model would come with the bare essentials – likely a display, only Wi-Fi connectivity, and a few other bits and bobs, just to get the basic user started. Still, that’s plenty to get us super excited for the future of the project.
It also raises as many questions as it answers. How much will the various modules cost? What sort of manufacturers will be interested in supporting a project that will, seemingly, drastically curb the future purchase of new smartphones in favor of cheaper modules? What sort of modules, exactly, are feasible? RAM? NAND storage? Speakers? CPU and GPU? How granular can the modules become? And how easy will it be to upgrade and interchange parts without screwing with your software version?
There’s a lot of stuff left in the air about the project, and I’m sure a lot of it will be detailed at the dev conference in April.
There’s another side to the pricing coin, however. As promising as the project is shaping up to be, I can say I’d be willing to, initially, put a little more money into having the phone I want, over buying a phone that permanently doesn’t have everything I want or need.
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume the LTE module is $150, the 1080p S-LCD3 module is $200, Snapdragon 801 SoC is $100, BoomSound-like speakers are $75, a 20-megapixel OIS camera is $150, 64GB is $100, 3GB RAM is $50, and a 3,500mAh battery is $150. (Keep in mind, these are just random prices.) That brings your total price before taxes to $1,025.
That’s a seriously tough knot to swallow upfront. But there are several luxuries in this process you wouldn’t have with a run-of-the-mill smartphone.
Yes, it costs a lot more than having a cookie cutter smartphone, but you have the ability to buy and upgrade as you can afford to. Can’t afford the Snapdragon 801 or 20-megapixel camera? Fine, buy the essentials first, and purchase the nonessentials at a later date. After the initial investment, upgrades and keeping your phone current could easily amount to a much more affordable hobby. Right now, purchasing a phone at $600 and selling just six months later at a $200 or $300 loss is unsustainable.
Upgrading piece by piece would, theoretically, be much more effective. Think of it like parting out a totaled vehicle – selling the individual parts will likely amount to much more than selling a non-working pile of salvageable parts.
Say you upgrade you camera module from an 8-megapixel sensor – which originally cost you $100 – for the $150 20-megapixel camera. You’re in a total of $250 for cameras alone, but you might be able to sell the 8-megapixel camera for $75, give or take. Your total loss is $25, not $200. And instead of having to setup an entirely new phone, you might have to update some drivers.
Even replacing a broken module could also be cheaper and easier than repairing a busted display or simply buying a totally new phone. Broken display? Pop off the old and snap on another for a fraction of the price of a new phone. Or if it’s going to cost you a pretty penny, you might as well splurge and upgrade to a better display than before, right? Best of all, you don’t have to worry yourself over data migration. It’s a win/win.
The benefits of this entire model spread far and wide, though I’m sure there are a handful of disadvantages, too. But I would most definitely be willing to put the additional money into having the exact setup I want, versus a prefabricated smartphone.
The true hurdle is the initial buy-in price. If the base model is only $50 and the individual modules are actually affordable, this entire concept should frighten existing smartphone manufacturers. It could put the entire smartphone market as we know it on its head.
Rest assured, I’ll be there to support it from day one.