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Google’s modular smartphone, Project Ara, is officially dead

Over the past few years, Google has been working on a modular smartphone concept that would allow users to swap certain components and customize the device. Potential add-ons ran the gamut from improved cameras to larger batteries. Initially, Google implied that core blocks like the CPU, display, and sensors might be swappable. But the company changed the design spec earlier this year to a much more limited platform in which the CPU, GPU, sensors, battery, and display were all locked down — leaving little reason to buy an Ara at all. Google seems to have read the writing on the wall and killed the project altogether.

While the company hasn’t made a formal announcement yet, Reuters has reported that the cancellation reflects an ongoing effort to streamline Google’s hardware projects and bring them under a single division. The company has also just killed its Pixel 2 Chromebook without announcing a replacement.

Project Ara’s design was interesting, but it was never clear how much market the device would actually have, or whether it would offer replacement CPUs or displays. The problems were significant: While PC desktop hardware is extremely modular, PC desktop hardware is also big. Mobile devices are designed for tight levels of integration, which Project Ara would have intrinsically lacked. In a conventional SoC, the CPU, GPU, and I/O hardware all live on the same slice of silicon. Replacing one of these components means replacing all of them. Android would have had to adopt a more Windows-like model of shipping with a large quantity of drivers, and would’ve had to instruct people in how to download new drivers for advanced hardware modules.

The theory behind Project Ara was sound: a modular smartphone that would generate much less waste, allow users to repair broken devices by replacing modules, and create a vibrant ecosystem of third-party components that would extend the usefulness and capability of smartphones in new ways (and possibly culminating in the creation of a tricorder-like device from Star Trek).

The problem is, it doesn’t play nice with current laws of physics. Building modular devices with separate interconnects and magnetic locks introduces wear and tear issues that can damage these components and leave them non-functional long term. This was a problem Google reportedly struggled to solve — in order for the interconnects to function properly, the contacts had to make tight contact — then maintain that contact over hundreds or thousands of removals and replacements. Gold is often used for these type of contacts, but gold is also comparatively easy to scratch or abrade. And while it’s not clear how much power the interconnects in Project Ara consumed, it would have been over and above that of current smartphones.

These issues and Google’s desire to consolidate its hardware efforts appear to have killed Project Ara. It’s not clear what comes next for the hardware it designed. There are rumors that it might license its technology to other partners. But with Google’s efforts having failed, few companies may be interested.

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