Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google Shelves Project Ara

Me, a little over a year ago:

Serious question: would non-nerds like to assemble their own smartphone?

Julia Love, Reuters, today:

Alphabet Inc’s Google has suspended Project Ara, its ambitious effort to build what is known as a modular smartphone with interchangeable components, as part of a broader push to streamline the company’s hardware efforts, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

The move marks an about-face for the tech company, which announced a host of partners for Project Ara at its developer conference in May and said it would ship a developer edition of the product this autumn.

So, that’d be a “no”, then?

Here’s something curious:

While Google will not be releasing the phone itself, the company may work with partners to bring Project Ara’s technology to market, potentially through licensing agreements, one of the people with knowledge of the matter said.

According to a 2014 Wired article by Mat Honan, that sounds kind of like the plan all along:

Project Ara relies on lots of manufacturers in lots of different places to make its components in parallel without being able to test the things they’re making against other those things. […]

The only thing Google will make is the endoskeleton frame—the bones that you can snap all the other modules on to.

My guess is that Google never got Ara to work properly and that nobody is going to buy the rights to make the skeleton or the software. Why would they?

There’s a press-related angle to all of this, too, that I find particularly fascinating. Google’s PR strategy frequently seems to involve inviting journalists to preview their research experiments. But instead of framing them as pie-in-the-sky ideas, some journalists cover them like working, fully-functional products that you will soon be able to buy. For example, here’s David Pierce covering Project Ara for Wired:1

There’s lots more to do, on design and software and branding and ecosystem-building. And, of course, they have to find out if anyone actually wants to buy this thing. But they’ve already done something special. Toward the end of our conversation, I look over and see Camargo just idly fiddling with his Ara. Not testing, not debugging, fiddling. It’s just his phone now.

Joshua Topolsky previewing Google Glass for the Verge in 2013:

What was a total oddity a year ago, and little more than an experiment just 18 months ago is now starting to look like a real product. One that could be in the hands (or on the heads, rather) of consumers by the end of this year.

Both of these projects covered so effusively are now, effectively, dead. But what’s most striking about these two articles — and many others like them, often on the same websites — is how positively both were covered despite their clear flaws. I get that this stuff is exciting, but journalists should be approaching these experiments with the same sort of skepticism that they usually reserve for actual products from Microsoft and Apple. I don’t see this as siege mentality, but more of a question of why Google’s prototypes are seen in such a positive light when their track record on similar projects is so flawed.

  1. The articles title is particularly rich: “Project Ara Lives: Google’s Modular Phone Is Ready for You Now”. Oh? ↩︎