Project Ara – the first modular smartphone

Signal of change / Project Ara – the first modular smartphone

By Joy Green / 24 Mar 2015

Google is currently developing a highly modular smartphone platform known as Project Ara that is due to pilot this year. It is a highly customisable basic phone with plug-in modules for everything from cameras to custom sensors that can be pulled off, swapped and upgraded as desired.

The idea is to extend the handset lifecycle (the average lifespan of a mobile phone is currently just 18 months) and reduce electronic waste by enabling mass reuse of modules. The different hardware modules available will be made mostly by third party developers, in a similar model to a software app store. If the pilot is successful, the aim is to make the Ara smartphone available and affordable globally, with a basic phone costing as little as $50.

Image: Project Ara / Wikipedia

So what?

E-waste from consumer electronics such as smartphones is a toxic problem that is currently getting worse. Current smartphones are essentially disposable and often end up dumped in places such as Agbogbloshie, the notorious e-waste site in Ghana. As they are difficult to recycle - they are not designed for easy disassembly - they are burnt or smashed to recover basic materials such as copper and high value elements are wasted. Local workers and the environment are seriously harmed as toxic heavy metals are released during the process. 

If Project Ara is a success it could herald a major shift away from a linear manufacturing paradigm (extract, manufacture, use, dipose) to a circular one that allows for re-use, repair, and safe recycling that maintains some of the manufactured value of components. A re-use ecosystem will need to emerge around the hardware modules for this to happen, and as Ara plans to be a global offer, this could potentially happen as new customers in Africa and Asia look for bargains on the market.

Sources

Know your Mobile (2015, March 12) Google Project Ara: In 2015 Smartphones will Go Modular 

Project Ara: http://www.projectara.com/

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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