Google delays DIY smartphone initiative

Google's open-source, modular phone has had to be delayed, but will we see more, similar products in future?
24 August 2015

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, tech investor


In the last 7 days, Google have announced that they have been forced to delay their open-source, modular phone - called Project ARA - until 2016 due to issues inClose up of smartphone in hand its development. This is one of the first phones of its kind, but what exactly do we mean by 'open-source' and 'modular'? Are these ideas which we can expect to hear more of in the future? Graihagh Jackson spoke to Peter Cowley to find out more...

Peter - Open source is the concept of, nobody owning the development or design and many people contributing to it. It's something that actually was around about 120 years ago when the car industry put together their patents and allowed everybody to use it. We've probably heard about source software. UNIX is an open source software platform which is used in many smartphones, but other things that you may not know are open source, Wikipedia, some pharmaceuticals companies have opened up drug designs to be open source. Scientific journals are becoming open source and rather very controversially is an open source 3D printed gun. 

Graihagh - Wow, okay. What about modular? What do we mean when we say 'modular'?

Peter - Modular in the terms of the phone is that the back plate of the phone allows a number of different modules to be put on there which would be the processor, the memory, the cameras, the battery, other things such as medical technology, different forms of speaker perhaps, a better speaker, two speakers, three speakers, all together on this back plate.

Graihagh - Okay, I see. Google's project ARA has combined both of these two elements together to make this all singing all dancing phone. 

Peter - Exactly, yes. Well, within the constraints of the size of the phone. What they've done is to have something which they call an endoskeleton which is basically a chunk of metal with some electronics in it which then allows the modules to be plugged in. The current standard for them is 8 modules on the back side which are things like the processor, etc. and two on the front. One of which of course is the screen itself. Putting these all together in a way that's going to be relatively cheap and robust and everything is obviously a very big task. 

Graihagh - Why do we want modular phones? Why do I want to be able to take it apart and put it back together again?

Peter - Good question. In fact, the original idea behind it is not the modularity. It's to try and open up the smartphones to more of the globe. So, at the moment, the rough numbers are, there are 7 billion people on the planet. One billion have smartphones, 5 billion have feature phones - believe it or not - and only 1 billion don't have a phone. The idea was to move these 5 billion up to have smartphones which gives them more kinds of functionality, etc. The upsides are that you can upgrade your phone without having to throw something away which will use less waste.

Graihagh - So, if my battery started to get a bit rubbish...

Peter - Exactly or there's not enough memory, you don't have to replace your phone every 2 or 3 years or 4 years, so there's less wastage there. You can share modules so I could lend you my posh camera and you can lend me your speaker, etc. And also, people who make their own bits, but the downsides are, it will be a bit bigger because clearly, you've got this back plate in the middle of it. It will almost certainly be a bit more expensive which doesn't make much sense if you're trying to increase the numbers. The certification, this is again, making it work around the world will be cruelly complicated.

Graihagh - Because I suppose one of the big issues at the moment is, all these different phones and they all take different chargers and it's annoying and I'm also thinking about, I don't know, what happens if the back plate comes off too easily. But you want it to come off reasonably easily so you can change all the bits. So, I suppose there's lots of things to be balanced out here.

Peter - Yeah. So, the rumours over the last week or two were that they were having problems with the back plate. So, when you dropped it, all phones, they go through a drop test, vibration test, etc., and that these things were pinging out. They've got something really clever called an electro permanent magnet which effectively, you put a little bit of electric current in there and it's in one state, you put electrical current in again and it then unclicks itself.

Graihagh - Oh clever, so it's not like a button or anything like that.

Peter - No. Exactly, it just fits on there so, it's controlled by the software to release it or not. However, those rumours I think are wrong and it sounds like it's more like, there's a bit more work to do and they haven't actually released it yet. The most important thing though is whether there is really going to be a market, whether the price is right, whether it's just the early doctors and geeks will be buying it, or whether they didn't get the half a billion or a billion out there that's probably out soon.

Graihagh - Surely though over time, like with anything, it would just decrease in price as it becomes more available though.

Peter - It will, but If you take any form of manufacturing, if you can make something standard, all in one box, then you're more likely to produce it more cheaply if it's very standard. I mean yes, you're right. If you didn't have a camera on it, you didn't have a speaker on it maybe, which doesn't make any sense for a phone, then clearly, it would be a cheaper phone then.

Graihagh - Why has it been delayed?

Peter - It's been delayed either because of possibly these rumours that it doesn't withstand the drop test.

Graihagh - It's the back plate issue.

Peter - Yeah or it's because there's some other functions you want to look at.

Graihagh - I see. So, what's the future of this? Is everything suddenly going to become open source and modular? What can I expect to see?

Peter - Yes. There is a general move towards that. People are wanting personalised products, personalised presents, all kinds of things where you can adapt them yourself. As 3D printers come out of the business space, into the consumer space that will help as well. But there's a number of areas where open source is being used. There's an open source car, so you can build your own car using components, print your own components. There are drones, robots and a number of medical devices, so open source prosthetics. One of the ones that you might be interested is open sources houses. There's actually something called 'wikihouse' which is a set of plans which are open source, which people download, then print your own house which you then put together. So you can actually build a 4-bedroom house in about a week with two people.

Graihagh - Can I think of this like a flat pack house?

Peter - It does sound a bit like a certain Swedish company might be producing it, but that's not the case.

Graihagh - So, what's different about this? Is there like wires in the walls? Is everything sort of already built in or...?

Peter - No. The idea behind it is that you...

Graihagh - Literally, you can just put up within a week like you and I can do it.

Peter - Exactly, very easy to do and then you can modify the design, add windows where you want to do.

Graihagh - I suppose the other benefit of this is that by lots of more people using all these bits of technology and designing things themselves actually encouraging them to learn more things about it and get into technology and science subjects.

Peter - At the moment, there's a big strangled hold particularly with mobile phones with the 5 to 10 big manufacturers. That will release that strangled hold potentially by opening it right up to smaller companies.


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