Project Ara Delayed—Fairphone 2 Beats Google to the Modular Punch

The future of mobile communications belongs to the modular smartphone, at least according to some industry insiders. Over the last year a number of different firms have been diligently working to perfect a build your own, snap to fit, smartphone for the world market. Up until recently, Google has been leading the pack with Project Ara, a wholly customizable smartphone that users can build for themselves from the ground up. Unfortunately, a series of delays have pushed back the ultimate release of the Project Ara series, and Google has found themselves beaten to the punch by a relative newcomer to the field, the Fairphone 2.

What is a Modular Smartphone?

A modular smartphone, in the simplest terms, is a handset that consist of a selection of removable and replaceable components. Each individual phone feature, from camera to processor, can be purchased separately and snapped into a purpose built shell. Think of it as Lego for the digital communications market. The advantages to a modular smartphone design are clear. People can purchase only the components they want or need, and when a part is worn out it can be replaced without the need to buy an entirely new handset. Upgrades to the components can be performed when needed, and according to the user’s wishes and budget restrictions. It’s quite a revolution and, if successful, will completely alter the current smartphone market. Google has been a leader in the modular smartphone movement, and Project Ara has been one of the most anticipated pieces of tech to come along in years. Unfortunately, Google’s modular adventure has hit a snag.

Project Ara Delayed

Trials for Google’s Project Ara were slated to begin this year in Puerto Rico, but a series of delays has pushed the trials back until 2016. The delay is due to the failure of the electropermanent magnets which are meant to hold the separate Project Ara components together when installed into a basic smartphone shell. The magnets, which are a combination of electro magnets and permanent magnets, failed to perform as expected in the latest round of experiments. This, along with unexpected complications surrounding the various iterations of the components, have forced Google and Yezz (it’s partner in developing the modular smartphone line) to push back the launch of Project Ara until sometime in 2016.

Introducing the Fairphone 2

Meanwhile, as Google rethinks Project Ara’s launch strategy, Dutch firm Fairphone is headed to the market with their own modular smartphone. The Fairphone 2, which is expected to retail for around £375, will be launched in December of this year. The Fairphone 2 will have a 5 inch display offering full HD resolution, and will be powered by a Snapdragon 801 chipset with 2GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage. It also features an 8 Mp rear camera, and a modest 2420 mAh battery. The Fairphone 2 has a projected lifespan of 5 years, and components can be replaced or upgraded as needed.

Fairphone vs Project Ara

While the Fairphone 2 may be the first modular smartphone to hit the open market, it should do nothing to hinder Google’s own Project Ara. In fact, the two phones differ in one significant area. The Fairphone is being sold as an already constructed unit. Yes, users can swap out components as needed, but unlike the project Ara handset customers are not able to custom build their smartphones from the ground up. Part of the Project Ara remit is to make smartphones more accessible and inexpensive by allowing the consumer to build as they go so to speak. Basic components for a no-frills phone can be purchased cheaply, with more exclusive features added as desired. This will allow Google and Yezz to bring smartphones to emerging markets, making them more affordable while offering the features needed to advance the market as it grows. It’s an important distinction, and one that Google is now doubt relying on to distinguish its modular smartphone from eventual competitors.

The launch of the Fairphone 2 is the first step in the evolution of the modular smartphone. While the Dutch firm may have beaten Google to the proverbial punch, Project Ara is far from dead in the water. Despite the delay, Google is expected to begin trials of the Ara series in North America starting in the first quarter of 2016. But the launch of the Fairphone 2 sounds the beginning of another communications revolution, and the modular smartphone may no longer be a dream of the future but a product of the here and now.

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