Amidst all this Apple party going around on the web where Apple fans woo and Apple haters boo the new MacBook and the Apple watch, someone just forgot about Google for a while. Or so it seems. While MacBooks have become thin enough that you could fry one in the pan with a papad by mistake, Google has been cooking something hot since quite some time.
Project ARA, a project Google loves to call its own was conceptualised in the research centres of Nokia (sorry Microsoft) and Philips where researchers came to the conclusion that mobiles could be made more modular. But when someone shouts on the web with the voice of Google, everyone takes notice. So Project ARA belongs to Google and if one were to believe in the plans, the coming months might see the first commercial phone of project ARA.
We are not sure what ARA stands for in this context. But as the world knows, Project ARA is supposed to make your phone modular. Project ARA aims to make hardware parts into individual modules which can be swapped in and out of the phone like you swap USB drives from your laptop these days. Only, they would slide in and out with style and to and from a phone. I guess a picture says a thousand words. So here I am saving a few thousand keystrokes:
So what was the ambition behind it? Google says it wants to collect the data from the 5 billion people who do not use their services. They obviously term it as
putting a phone in hands of billions but you know the truth. I’m neither claiming nor denying that as a potentially malicious intention (that’s a debatable topic with endless discussion and left out for another day). So it is clear that it must have the potential and the ambition to change the world, one mobile module at a time.
The general public believes that it would let them swap mobile modules in and out of the phone as desired. E.g. if you wanted a better battery, you could get a better battery module. Or if you wanted a better camera, you could swap the camera module and so on. Sure it lets you do that, but the usability does not stop there. You might also be able to insert totally new devices, like an atmospheric pressure sensor, or a heartbeat sensor or one of the thousands other types of devices possible.
Great power comes with great dangers of its own and hence requires responsibility. Apple takes the responsibility and while makes a slight mistake once in a while, in most cases, takes care of the user by ensuring great experience without malware and controlling its platform with overwhelming obsession. Apple might be wrong in doing so, but it does think that users cannot be trusted for a mistake which can be dangerous for themselves.
On the far end of the other side lies Google. It gives complete freedom to the user while making it clear that the responsibility to stay safe and within the boundaries of law lies on the head of the user. This approach to freedom means no control over the platform. This allows a chaos to prevail. This allows fragmentation. It allows hackers of both noble and malicious intention to get into your device. Here lies the problem. Project ARA just goes one step further and brings the chaos to hardware which till now was only prevalent in software.
What can fail Project ARA
So yes, we do think Project ARA can fail. Not that we claim it will. A lot of such opinions in the past have existed and have been proven wrong; ours can be too. But for now, here they are:
Madness will preside over module sale
Right now, people running after specifications in frenzy, as if that extra GB of RAM would suffice for programmers' carelessness already looks crazy. Fact is - it is crazy. Phones are supposed to run apps, not AI algorithms for mining data to provide real-time analytics. Web browsing, some gaming, a few apps and all of this working together beautifully is what is needed for most. But not-so-surprisingly, a hacker does not ask all of this anyway.
For now, most normal people with normal demands are being driven towards costlier phones in the name of specifications. Project ARA has a capability to turn this into a module buying nutjob for masses.
Imagine80 MP camera for your phone for only half of your monthly salarybillboards.
Project ARA diffuses your
need of a better phone into
need of a better module. Each one can be priced in any manner. While low-end stuff will remain cheap, it is the mid and high ranges where real money lies and that is where every manufacturer will target. They will each try to make you buy their processor, their RAM, their graphics, their camera and their battery; now separately, and harder.
Compatibility issues might come up
Sir, I understand you have put money to buy the new 16 GB memory extension, but it has got issues with your current processing module. You would have to replace one of them.
While I believe Google will take care of such issues, things like that can happen. Who knows, one manufacturer might build one of his module to intentionally not work with one of another manufacturer. One such occurrence breaks the faith of the customer for years. Only a real fanboy, or a person in real need would jump up and go replace the other component too; most won’t. As far as trusting Google is concerned, didn’t we expect them to maintain their ecosystem? But hey, you get malicious apps on the Play Store. Hard work of developers is drained because their work can be pirated and released for free. Given the history and current state, expecting module conflicts to not occur might be a mistake. Only time will tell.
Data might be stolen by makers of a module
Dude, I've got this super great processing module which can make apps run so fast, you can't believe it!
Statements like that are easy to believe. Modules like that might be easy to buy. A lot of people who go crazy after specifications might just buy a processing module which contains a pre-installed malware to steal data. Once you have the freedom Android offers, the only person you can truly trust is yourself. If a reputed manufacturer like Lenovo can embed malware into their very machine on a rather closed down ecosystem of Windows, you can only imagine what Project ARA can unleash. The fears are amplified with phones because a phone is almost always switched on and is within few meters of reach.
I’d leave the rest of the deduction with an open mind.
Sliding modules out, accidentally
I’m so frustrated mate. Last time my camera and this time my memory module accidentally slid out and fell in open manhole. Why can’t they cover manholes?
This might be a funny one, or a wrong one for some people. It definitely sounds silly at the first go. But while you are using the phone, one simple slide of your finger over a hardware module might kick it out of the system, on the ground. Depending on what it was, how big it was and where it fell, it might be a great loss to you. For example, you are carrying your office presentation in the phone’s memory module and it just… you know!
Stability of the OS can be at risk
I inserted your graphics module in my phone. The game ran but it crashed my contacts app and corrupted data. Think what, the corrupted data got synced to my online account as well. It’s all your fault.
Sound of that might get familiar in future. Android phones in the beginning (pre 4.0 era) were a nightmare as far as running apps was concerned. Those things wouldn’t stop crashing at times. Heating issues, slowdowns, data corruption were issues one had to face once a week in some form or other. Right now, Androids of today are much more stable but not nearly as stable as one would want it to be. Games still crash, some apps still make the OS hang into limbo and backups are still important.
Project ARA will allow people to exchange modules. And if people are allowed to, they will. Once again, we would love for everything to work seamlessly. But when was the last time you got a truly flexible hardware device which was also stable? Probably a long time back. Complexity increases on software level as you add the options on the hardware level. It is bound to either crash or there would be separate layers in the OS to talk to different types of components and that can be either slow, or buggy, or both. We probably are going to start that Windows XP’s driver issues problem again. And this time on phone.
When it comes to OS, things can get very elaborate and this is no place to discuss them at length. But if you have had an experience as a user or if you understand it as a guy who learnt computers in his school or college, you can predict the range of problems.
Project ARA is not out yet, not completely at least. It is unsure what it will put on our plates and these are only opinions. We can be wrong. We might also be right. There are some problems among the ones listed which can be avoided if Google takes care of it. However, with so much of flexibility, a few things are bound to go haywire. Manufacturers continuously struggle to bring a stable Android on their predefined set of hardware. How this level of flexibility affects the situation can be determined only by the God of time.