Get Updates by Email

Thursday, 8 September 2016

3 Lessons from Project Ara

The modular pieces that could be swapped in the Project Ara mobile phone.

Google just axed Project Ara. 

Just letting you know what happens in the end. 

But first ....

The idea behind Project Ara

You might not know what Project Ara was about. So let me tell you about it. Think about your mobile phone.

Most people change mobile phone once every few years. Maybe the battery's not functioning so well anymore and they don't make the same battery any more. Maybe they want a better camera phone for selfies. More RAM for games.

But every time somebody changed a phone, an old phone would go to the landfill. It was causing an overload of electronic waste.

That was the idea that sparked Project Ara. Why change the entire phone if you could change only the part you need? Thus was born Project Ara, "the modular phone".

Motorola started the project under the project under a lady called Regina Dugan. 

It was within a division called ATAP, short for the Advanced Technology and Projects group. Incidentally, Regina was previously head of DARPA, a division of the Pentagon.

Then Motorola got acquired by Google, and ATAP was also transferred to Google. 

The Project got a lot of good press and there was a lot of expectations. Some people predicted that it would herald a new wave of mobile devices. 

And when a big company like Google takes it over, the expectation is that the huge resources of the large company will help the dream to come true, sooner.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, the project dragged on, day after day. There were fears that it would be shelved, or even axed.

Somewhere along the road, Motorola was sold off to Lenovo. Google had bought it for $12.5 billion and sold it for $2.91 billion

If you click on the link, you'll see the responses on Quora which say that Google bought, and then sold, Motorola to Lenovo, because of the patents. Google needed the patents as a bulwark against potential patent litigation from Apple. Samsung was also a factor.

On another level, Google got rid of the mobile phone division because mobile phone makers got the jitters that they would compete directly against Google. So Google said, "I'm getting rid of Motorola, so that you can support the Android OS without fear." 

Back to Project Ara, Regina, the project head, was having a difficult time. She found herself struggling to make progress in Google. So eventually, Regina left Google for Facebook.

And then Google announced the shutdown of Project Ara.
The Project Ara modules were interchangeable.

The lessons from Project Ara

These are mostly based on the four articles that I read on the topic. You can see the reference list at the bottom of this article.

Lesson 1. Challenges stifle innovation.

Regina Dugan wrote a blog piece that revealed her frustrations within Google. She wrote: "Each of our efforts to create new, seemingly impossible products, has been faced with intense challenges along the way. Technical challenges. Organizational challenges. Challenges that might have broken lesser teams. This is the type of work we signed up for when we built ATAP. It is terrifying because it means we have to face our fear of failure, stare it down, more days than most. So be it." (Source: Wired.)

She pointed to two types of challenges. The first type is technical challenges. The second type is organizational challenges. 

Of the two, the second is more easily understandable, if you've ever read the Dilbert comics. Unreasonable bosses and colleagues, people who want to be important, people who suppress others so that they can take credit. 

The former is less easily understood. But technical challenges may relate to resources and knowledge that are required to carried out research. It might be lack of funding, lack of equipment, lack of premises. But all those seem unlikely. Maybe it was lack of belief. As in, her employers did not believe in the project any more.

Lesson 2. When facing ever larger challenges, it may be all right to axe a project.

The articles I read seemed to indicate that if Google had continued with Project Ara, its troubles would be ever increasing.

First, modular components would have caused poor battery life and complicated communications between components. (Fortune)

Second, it would need to find someone to take over the project. And it wouldn't be easy to find a replacement for Regina Dugan.

Third, "some things are gonna die and some are gonna live." Project Ara wasn't ATAP's only project. There are also other projects that have a higher chance at success. (Wired)

Fourth, Project Ara was not likely to scale, and it would be tough to spin off. The logical next move would be to stop the project and stop the drain on resources. (Wired)

Fifth, Google is facing other challenges e.g. Google Fiber. It would do better to consolidate its resources so that it can focus better on its core businesses. (Engadget)

Lesson 3. Just because Google doesn't want it, doesn't mean that it's a failure.

Google has axed other projects before. You might have heard of Google Glass -- it's been axed. Or maybe it's still being developed. Who knows?

This one's related to a totally different project. 

Google once had a company called Niantic Labs, which had a project called Ingress. It was a multiplayer location-based mobile game. People could take up challenges, meet each other, challenge monsters ... sound familiar?

Niantic was spun off. And it repackaged Ingress into Pokemon Go.

As you might know, Pokemon Go is a huge success. Kids and adults running everywhere, peering into their mobile phones in the hopes of catching monsters.

Project Ara could have been something like that. Not monsters, but a success. Google could have partnered with some mobile phone maker and tried to take it to the next level, but they didn't.

Thanks for reading.

Here are some other pieces from me.


1) Google Ara is DEAD! (

Share this article :