Project Ara’s secret weapon? A smaller phone

Gigaom

Google’s wildly ambitious modular phone, Project Ara, has a lot going for it: Serious engineering accomplishments. Magnets. The power of an idea that went viral before anyone considered it possible. But its best path to mainstream adoption could be the most prosaic of all. While Project Ara will come in multiple sizes, it will include a small version, one that fits well in human hands.

When Project Ara launches in early 2015, it will eventually come in three separate base “endo” sizes, which are barebones handsets that add-on modules plug into. One module could be a wireless module, allowing the device to connect to international cellular providers. Another module could be an extra battery, or a graphics processor — basically, the system wants users to build the device to their own taste through modules built to standardized specifications. Eventually, Google wants a thriving marketplace of hardware makers and tinkerers making modules.

Recently I spoke to Gadi Amit, the founder and principal designer at New Deal Design, which designed the Fitbit and Whistle and, most recently, did the industrial design for Project Ara. He noted that, of the three different endos, the one that’s getting a lot of attention is the mini size.

“Every time we showed the mini Endo, everyone gravitated toward it,” Amit said. “Obviously what I am saying is not scientific, but among the dozens and now hundreds of people who experienced it firsthand the smaller size looks very interesting.”

Three planned Endo sizes. A rough estimate of the smallest would put it at about 118mm tall and 45mm wide.

Even as Android handset sizes creep past 5 inches and beyond, and it seems increasingly likely Apple will release a bigger iPhone this year, there’s still a vocal contingent of users who want a smaller device, whether it’s for one-handed usage, better pocketability, or simply aesthetic and ergonomic taste.

“It’s an interesting observation of where the industry is going physically — the phones growing all the time, 3.5 to 4 to 5 inches,” Amit said. “But people feel quite fine with higher-res small screens.”

Reversing the trend

There’s a reason phones have been getting bigger: they’re replacing the desktop and competing with tablets. Bigger screens are better for video, and mobile users around the world love watching TV and movies on their phones. More sophisticated components are being packed into thinner casings and the operating systems and software can do more. This is enormously beneficial for the billions worldwide for whom a smartphone will likely be their first and only computer — a market Project Ara means to address — but raises potential problems for customers in the developed world, who may already own powerful desktop computers and tablets in addition to smartphones, and who might love to trade power for portability.

Despite the massive market for first-time smartphone customers, in order for Project Ara to cultivate a thriving ecosystem of module makers, there will need to be an opportunity for high-margin products. And first-time buyers in, say, Southeast Asia aren’t likely to pay the same prices as gadget-crazy early adopters in the United States or Europe.

That’s part of the beauty to the modular approach — the same devices can mean different things to different consumers. A early adopter could purchase a Project Ara Endo because he wants a smaller phone, whereas a developing market customer would adopt it because it’s inexpensive. The first planned phone is called a “grey phone” and will reportedly have a bill of materials cost around $50. Without a separate module, it will only have Wi-Fi connectivity, which could be just fine for people weaned on apps like WhatsApp and Skype.

However, it’s hard to imagine consumers used to fully featured premium handsets adopting a limited phone simply because it is cheaper. Most smartphone users are accustomed to certain features — wireless connectivity, a camera, a speedy processor — and might not feel like popping modules in or out just to get the same level of functionality of an iPhone. The biggest opportunity for wide Project Ara adoption might not be a new kind of phone, but rather the ability to build a better phone, and for many consumers, that starts with physical size.

Here’s what Amit wants from his Project Ara phone when it’s released:

“For me, the pocketability and the ability to carry the phone in a variety of environments is very important to me. The second thing I’ll probably have is a relatively large battery. I probably will have two batteries. I’m not big on photography so I’ll probably have the relatively simple camera, but I am quite demanding in terms of connectivity so if there’s gonna be a special antenna module, that creates a better or more reliable connection I’ll probably take it. And also if there is a multi-SIM card module that will allow me to go around the world without paying roaming fees, that’s something I’ll take into account. I actually want a phone with a smaller screen. So you know the 3 types of Endo, I’ll probably pick the smaller one.”

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