Google’s PhoneBloks concept is exciting and it’s never going to work (for the mass market)


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When you love tech (sometimes just for tech’s sake), it can be pretty heady stuff to read up on the projects that Google has on the go. Consider this incomplete list, it’s really quite extraordinary:

You’ve got to hand it to Larry and Sergei. When they dream, they dream big. How cool is it that a couple of guys who came up with a better way to index the web are now in a position to influence the course of human history?

But when you roll the dice on monster concepts, you’ve got to be prepared when some of them don’t pan out. Of the items on the list above, there’s a good chance that all but the space elevator and human lifespan will make it from concept to reality. Even the driverless car–an idea that we were scoffing at less than 6 years ago–is real, and it works and they’re even legal in some places.

What I like about all of these projects is that there is a strong chance that if they work out as planned, they will see mass adoption. A lot of people are going to want the benefits these projects will offer.

But I can’t say the same for Google’s most recent foray into the future: Project Ara.

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Project Ara is Google’s concept for a modular smartphone platform. You may have heard of this already under the name PhoneBloks. Turns out, they were once separate efforts that are now united under the combined Google/Motorola banner (even though Google has agreed to sell most of that company to Lenovo).

It’s a fascinating and wonderful idea: What if, instead of having to trade in, sell, or giveaway your old phone when newer features hit the market e.g. a fingerprint scanner or better WiFi, you could simply upgrade just that component, leaving all of the phone’s other features and functions untouched? Moreover, what if you could choose from several sizes of device and then customize exactly which of these modules it came equipped with when new, knowing you could swap the modules later if you needed something different?

It sounds like techno-nirvana, especially for those of us who grew up playing with LEGO and admiring the component Hi-Fi systems our parents had lovingly assembled in the family room.

But as appealing as this concept might be for the small percentage of folks who value versatility and upgradeability over simplicity, PhoneBloks will never reach a mass market and that’s why its future is bleak.

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Don’t get me wrong, I would like PhoneBloks to succeed, but after watching industry trends for the last 20 years, these are the factors that are going to work against it:

Design

Though the name makes it obvious (as do the product renderings), let’s not forget that these phones will be well, blocky. Even if the modules themselves end up with gently curved corners and are made as low-profile as possible, it’s physically impossible to create a phone using swappable modules that can be as thin and light as a phone that embeds these components internally. If the PhoneBloks concept takes off, after a few generations the modules might actually evolve to the point where they don’t protrude from the phone’s frame. But even if that happens, the overall product will remain larger and bulkier than an equivalently equipped embedded-design.

The Myth Of Upgradeability

One of the core beliefs that the PhoneBloks concept is based on is that consumers really want to be able to change their phone’s capabilities over time. And while that might be true of certain elements (like wishing you could have a better camera or be able to access Siri) the market has proven itself exceptionally willing to forego features like expandable storage or even replaceable batteries. Just think, back in 2007 when Apple launched the iPhone, people who were used to having BlackBerrys and feature phones scoffed loudly at the iPhone’s sealed battery (not to mention its pathetic battery life). Once BlackBerrys and other competitors started shipping with expandable storage via MicroSD cards, these same people scoffed again at Apple’s apparently disdainful decision to only offer the iPhone in set storage sizes (8, 16, 32 etc.) But we’re all familiar with what happened. The market decided, much to the surprise of tech pundits and Apple’s competitors alike, that these things just don’t matter as much as everyone thought. Did consumers wish that Apple had offered these two features? Perhaps. But you’d never know it by looking at the sales numbers.

The Myth Of Customization

It seems especially true in western countries—and no more so than in the U.S.—that a person’s individual nature is considered holy. We are all unique, with our own personalities, and thanks to our freedom within our wonderful democracies, we get to express these personalities any way we see fit. Or so the theory goes. From that belief comes the notion that what people value is the ability to make an object “their own” through customization. And sure enough, this is true in areas like people’s homes, their choice of clothes, makeup, vehicles and consumption of the arts. Everyone picks what she or he likes. Everyone’s different, right? Actually, no, we aren’t.

The truth is, while we might have differing tastes on small things like the colour of our walls, or brand of footwear we’re loyal to, on a massive scale, we’re far more alike than we’d like to think. Not convinced? Just look at the success of a store like IKEA, or a movie like Frozen, or a musician like Bruce Springsteen. We might not all like the same things, but when we do agree, we agree on a massive scale. So it follows from this that, despite our whining about wanting choice and customization, what we really want is the same thing that a lot of other people want: a really good experience. We happily join the crowd when we find one.

We even have a recent example of customization’s failure to win over a mass market: Last year, Motorola debuted the Moto X, a really well-built, well-designed Android smartphone. It had a competitive feature set, it scored highly with reviewers, and it had a killer feature that should have catapulted it to dominance: In the U.S. you can order it online and pick from a wide variety of case colours and materials including real bamboo and wood. If there was any truth to the notion that the market was being heavily underserved in the area of choice, the Moto X should have been a runaway success. After four months on the market, it had reportedly only sold 500,000 units – a tiny number when compared to the 33.8 million iPhones Apple sold during a similar period. So much for wanting to be different.

The Enduring Appeal Of “New”

PhoneBloks should be lauded for their environmentally-conscious goal of not tossing out a phone simply because you want a feature upgrade. So-called “built-in obsolescence” is a drag. Why won’t my first generation iPad run Apple’s latest version of iOS, for instance? It just makes a ton of sense to stick with the product we bought and then, over time as things change, we just upgrade the parts that need upgrading.

Except that human beings are a peculiar species. We can simultaneously acknowledge the logic of such an idea, while we gaze longingly at the brand-new, shiny model. It’s possible to upgrade a car through the dizzying array of aftermarket products. But most of us don’t. It’s possible to upgrade the components of a desktop PC (as long as it’s not an iMac!) but apart from more RAM, most of us don’t. Even when faced with one of the most popular upgrades of all time: the home reno, it’s amazing how many people will opt to sell their house and buy one that already has the features they want.

We love what’s new, even when it’s only a little better than what we currently own. Especially when buying new won’t break the bank. We see this every time Apple releases a new iPhone model. A huge chunk of the early buyers are always existing iPhone owners, many of whom are upgrading from the immediately prior model.

So despite being able to soup-up a PhoneBloks phone hot-rod style, the mass market will continue to value a shiny new phone over a shiny new Blok.

So What, Who Cares?

If you’ve been thinking throughout this piece that I’m being thick, and that of course the PhoneBloks concept isn’t for everyone, I know what you mean. After all, why get all negative over a new idea just because it won’t resonate with a mass audience? And how do you really know? After all, it hasn’t even hit the market yet and the idea has almost a million supporters. Plenty of successful ideas started small, right? Ahem, Facebook! Yes, yes and yes.

It’s absolutely true that PhoneBloks needn’t achieve iPhone-like sales figures in order to prove itself a successful model for the smartphone industry. But it’s also true that it must nevertheless achieve a minimum level of adoption in order to simply stay alive. Given what I’ve outlined, I just don’t think this will happen. And it’s a shame, because ideas like PhoneBloks are what we need to spark the next round of innovation in an industry that has become dominated by two giants.

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