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File it under ‘it seemed great on paper’… but Google’s project Ara modular smartphone concept is — for all intents and purposes — dead.

If you want to be a little more generous, you can say Google has pivoted away from attempting to engineer the impossible — i.e. total smartphone modularity — to strip it back to a few swappable units that will not include core phone components.

And that’s assuming its latest prototype ever makes it to market, as none of its Ara predecessors have.

The prototype Google was showing off at I/O last week, now pledging a 2017 commercial release for a modular phone it’s been working to bring to market since at least 2013, will apparently have six spaces on the back for swappable modules.

A camera, a speaker and an e-ink display are some of the early ideas for modules that Google is talking about, although it says it intends to open this up to let third parties build stuff.

The head of creative and marketing for the ATAP skunkworks lab, which the project falls under at Google/Alphabet, anticipates hardware hackers building “crazy stuff” to squeeze into Ara’s sockets.

And crazy is the word because modularity is necessarily a minority passion. The mainstream isn’t half so keen on needing to physically configure their high tech kit before they can use it as they wish (vs the geek fraternity voluntarily spending all their spare hours doing exactly that).

Even lead Ara engineer, Rafa Camargo, confessed as much himself in an interview with CNET. “When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there, to always work, and to be consistent,” he said.

Key phrases there: ‘Always work’. ‘Be consistent’.

In other words, the exact opposite of modularity.

And still Google pushes Ara.

The new party trick for Ara shown off on stage at I/O is a voice command that lets the user eject a swappable camera module by saying ‘Ok Google eject the camera’ — garnering much applause from the developer crowd at the event.

But Google using a publicity-prone yet impractical non-commercial gizmo to showcase another, far more core piece of its tech (voice-based interfaces) is standard playbook for such a savvy marketing entity. (StreetView cameras strapped to hikers anyone?)

And perhaps explains why Ara has gone the distance at Google yet never shipped.

The dream of the modular smartphone yielding completely customizable consumer handsets always seems far more enticing than the reality of demanding, prone to falling apart prototypes. But if the engineering challenge is hideous, the consumer reality is even more unappealing. Fiddly bits of phone that get misplaced or lost down the back of the sofa… Er, tell me again why it’s a good idea to make a smartphone more complicated to use?

And why, as a consumer, would you want your smartphone to not have a decent camera/audio performance in the first place? That’s the great conjuring conceal of Ara-style modularity — ‘buy this not very good device, and then pay more to make it a bit better!’

When it comes to adding extra functionality via modules, i.e. not just improving an existing set of core phone features, then the promise is to support niche use-cases — say by adding an environmental sensor module — which is necessarily of minority, not mass, appeal.

And why do you need a sensor to be plugged into the back of the phone anyway? The huge spectrum of extant Bluetooth IoT add-ons that link to a mobile or tablet without needing to be physically plugged into that device makes Ara’s promise of plug-and-play sensor modules at best incrementally interesting.

The e-ink screen module is perhaps the most compelling idea here IMO. But Yota Devices has been attempting to drive interest in dual-display e-ink smartphones for years. Cool? Absolutely. Mainstream appeal? Absolutely not.

Ok then, what about affordability? At one point Google was talking about the base Ara hardware being $50, which sounded surprisingly cheap (at the time). Albeit you’d still need to factor in module costs…

At first glance, modularity might look like an interesting avenue to explore if making phones more affordable is your key driver — as a way to expand the range of features in a low cost basic device by enabling the buyer to spread the cost with modular add-ons.

But given the engineering complexity of building a robust base for modules to plug into and play nicely with, and the fact Google is not specifying how much add-on modules will cost at this point, ‘huge affordability’ is not really looking like it’s in Ara’s box of add-on tricks.

At the same time, low cost smartphones continue to become more capable as higher end specs and features are squeezed further down the price continuum by a hyper competitive, face-paced smartphone market. So modularity looks like a very slow, sub-par ‘solution’ — if solution it be — to affordability.

The original inspiration behind Ara was in fact another concept called Phonebloks — which was motivated by a recycling/reuse agenda, with a stated aim of wanting to ‘change the way electronics are made in order to create less waste’. Which is certainly a whole lot more interesting as an idea. But it is not, apparently, the direction Google is pushing Ara in.

Au contraire Ara’s slimmed down modularity now appears aimed at creating more electronic stuff per person/smartphone, by selling a pick ‘n’ mix of additional hardware bits and thereby encouraging an expanding of the electronics-plus-plastics pie.