Towards the end of 2013, there was considerable socnet buzz surrounding Motorola Mobility’s announcement of Project Ara and its relationship with Dave Hakkens’ Phonebloks (see Motorola blog for details). One article that resonated with me was a ZDNet piece penned by Matt Baxter-Reynolds. In his excellent dissection, Baxter-Reynolds offers an argument as to why the demise of Project Ara is essentially a foregone conclusion. He calls out the following issues:
1) Product Cost – “Modular phones will always be more expensive.”
2) Industry Inertia – “The industry is geared around selling airtime contracts with a sum of money grafted on to the monthly payments in which the customer buys a phone. Having the customer upgrade at the end of the contract results in a ton of money flowing through the system, which everyone likes.”
3) Product Complexity – “If we’ve learnt anything over recent years is that customers want cheap, reliable, simple kit that just works.”
4) Product Reliability – “If those components are all loosely connected together using macroscopic connectors it’s either not going to be reliable, or drive up the cost even more.”
5) Intellectual Control – “Smartphone manufacturers are not going to want to open up their experience to competitors. They want to design a device and get it into the hands of their customers.”
Being an experienced product developer, it’s difficult for me to disagree with his assessment; he makes some valid points. However, as an industrial designer it should be incumbent upon me to question what on the surface seems to be good common sense. After all, recent history is littered with devices which, until their introduction, were nonsensical or impossible for reasons not much different than those outlined above.
Innovation often comes from challenging what appear to be insurmountable limitations, so to exercise some contrarian muscles, I’ve decided to take each “limitation” point in the above list and offer my counterpoint.
First, I have to say I really dislike absolutes like “always”. As an industrial designer, “always” seems extraordinarily limiting to me. My response to “always” is a set of questions.
- Will future smartphones have the same form factor as today’s devices?
- Will future smartphones continue to use rigid displays and glass?
- Will future smartphones continue to use the same, silicon-based components?
- Will future smartphones continue to use today’s battery technology?
Imagine a device with a flexible, origami-style display, atomic-scale memory storage, and biologically inspired components so small they’re effectively invisible; stored in whatever form is best suited for our clumsy human fingers. Electricity to power this future device might come from kinetic energy stored elsewhere on our body and delivered to the phone through our skin.
I can dream up future product ‘til the cows come home, but I don’t know what will or will not come to pass. I only believe my future device is plausible, and that’s enough. For all we know, modularity may be a necessary evolution of the mobile phone, and every manufacturer will have to adopt that approach to even remain in the market; kind of like having an app marketplace or depending on someone else’s operating system.
“Always” is a tricky word.
I’ll simply posit that industries evolve. Thus, I don’t put much stock in how today’s industry is geared when discussing future possibilities. I especially don’t put stock into the status quo when I read Baxter-Reynolds’ argument for industry inertia, “Having the customer upgrade at the end of the contract results in a ton of money flowing through the system, which everyone likes.” Everyone, that is, except consumers, who are the source of this wonderful stream of revenue within the industry.
About ten years ago on the Coroflot forum I essentially predicted that cellphones would be handed out with service contracts. More recently my girlfriend lamented that her $200 cellphone was now available for $0.99 with the same two-year contract she’d signed less than a year ago. How will and how does that happen? It happens because the real money these days often isn’t in the hardware. Thus, in this context, I’d argue higher hardware cost isn’t an insurmountable barrier. If anything, innovating around the constraints inherent to modularity may yield valuable intellectual property and market exclusivity. Few things get corporations more excited than industry-changing basic patents.
I’m betting someone is eventually going to shift gears. Again.
I can’t help but see a disconnect in the author’s assertion that modular phones introduce unreasonable complexity to smartphones and are thus inherently undesirable to consumers. This assertion is made based on the maxim that consumers want “simple kit”. If that were the overriding issue, I’d argue consumers might still be using clamshell cellphones. Truth is, for some people, moving from a clamshell phone to a smartphone is an anxiety-inducing activity.
It’s not that I disagree “customers want cheap, reliable, simple kit that just works”. I just think he’s missing a bigger picture. From my point of view, the author ignores the fact that smartphones are successful in spite of increasing product complexity. I’d instead argue that consumers are enduring complexity in order to get new features they want; that, and not look like they’re living in the 20th Century.
When it comes to consumer preferences, I’m happy to avoid declaring what consumers want and will let the market decide.
No two ways about it: connectors are an issue. So is sealing. And surviving a three-foot drop to concrete. However, these are engineering issues; not consumer issues. The consumer doesn’t care about the hurdles an engineering team will need to overcome. The real question is whether or not engineers can overcome connector reliability so that consumers aren’t forced to think about it.
I can just imagine tire manufacturers in the early days of the automobile industry debating whether or not they could reliably deliver inflatable tires that didn’t leak at the rims. The answer today is the same answer it was a century ago; those who can deliver a reliable product survive; those who can’t get run over (or something like that).
To his credit the author is careful to include a caveat: “if macroscopic connectors are used”. Well, what if they’re not and instead some efficient, cost-effective transmission method is developed that renders current methods obsolete? Let’s not forget consumer cellphones didn’t even exist a short few decades ago. Is this really such a stretch?
Personally, I’m confident we’ll all continue to be amazed by human ingenuity and this concern will soon be forgotten.
Control is always an issue; but so is context. First off, who cares if a manufacturer wants to share their experience; reveal their methods? It’s not like they have a lock on problem solving. Second, experience can sometimes be a hindrance. It can be the proverbial “box” in which we can sometimes find ourselves. Case in point: from “Gamers solve molecular puzzle that baffled scientists”
“What do you think gave them the edge… over scientists – engineers even – that devoted their lives to this type of research?”
“I think, a lot of the players who don’t have sort of a biochemistry background, have a lot of sort of fearless approaches … so they’re able to be really creative and come up with a lot of different interesting solutions to the problems.”
I don’t know enough about either to predict whether or not Project Ara/Phonebloks will succeed. A lot of things go into developing a successful product, not the least of which is market acceptance. I do know this, innovation doesn’t come from being so practical that possibilities are overlooked and opportunities are lost.
That’s why I believe discounting Project Ara is a mistake.