I’ve been getting asked a lot lately what I think about Google’s new “Project Ara” – their modular smartphone initiative that’s gotten some press lately. Katherine Noyes’ insightful, new article in Fortune magazine is a good case in point. Is Google crazy for trying this? Or are we reaching a tipping point – generationally, socially – where the inherent benefits of the approach will appeal in a way that’s economically sustainable?
In a word, yes. Because, honestly, all great leaders are a little crazy. And Google has shown it wants to earn that reputation.
There are a number of compelling reasons why a modular approach to a smartphone might catch on, most of which have already been noted elsewhere – choice, flexibility, less e-waste, more room for community involvement. My company, Bug Labs, has been a pioneer in this space since 2006. We started initially with modular hardware and have since evolved our thinking to include modular software. For example, we recently launched dweet™ and freeboard™ – two, simple, modular apps meant to make building “Internet of Things” products faster and easier. But there is another aspect of this discussion that bears consideration.
For the most part, smart phones are a mass market consumer device. The huge volumes sold to date have all gone to folks like you and me. We use them as-is, exactly in the manner designed, for our own personal lives and activities. And that model has been an enormous success. However, many people are now using their own personal phones at work too. So many of us are doing it that a brand new acronym has been invented – B.Y.O.D. – Bring Your Own Device.
In essence, BYOD means that instead of using that old-school, company issued Blackberry, we are instead using our personal iPhone or Android device, irrespective of the corporate rules. As disruptive as it is, smart organizations aren’t fighting the trend. They are leveraging the investments their employees are making in new technology. For Project Ara, BYOD could be a godsend.
A key benefit of a modular device is the ability to change its “personality” by simple changing some of the key components that make up the phone. Today, applications are the only way we can modify the behavior of our phones to participate in any kind of BYOD activity. Those applications, in turn, use whatever sensors, buttons, interfaces that are built-in to the phone. Smartphone application designers are only able to use what’s provided by the mass market manufacturers. This is a pretty serious constraint.
Imagine a situation where businesses could write specific, high-value applications that take advantage of your phone with a special, company-provided module installed. For example, maybe it would make sense to swap out the normal camera for a faster, more accurate, barcode reader. Or maybe, for the job you’re on, an infrared thermometer would be super helpful. Neither of those components come with the “standard issue” phone. But they could be made available by an employer, or customer, or partner. The modularity, in this model, is multi-tenant – that is, the advantages extend far beyond any one individual and their own module collection. It’s a little like, you own a cup. What gets poured into it changes over time. Sometimes you fill it, other times someone else does.
With this line of thinking, the idea of a mass market changes. Specifically, the word “mass” takes on a different meaning. Instead of it meaning a mass quantity of the same, exact thing each owned by single owner, it represents a mass matrix of potential module combinations owned by a similar mass matrix of individuals and/or organizations. This is a huge change. And it unlocks a similarly huge opportunity because it is a raw, untouched area for innovation. It will require serious commitment and appetite for risk (and the pocketbook to persevere). I think Google may be the right company to lead the way.
One thing worth noting however. While this approach eliminates the “tyranny of the the killer app” it replaces it with another equally troublesome issue —> the “tyranny of choice”. But that’s the subject of another blog post