What Is Ara And What Does It Mean For Android Developers? - 1 Nov 2013

What is Ara?

Ara is the latest smartphone device from Motorola. The smartphone itself allows users buy and install new modules which will slot into place in one of the several spaces on the back of the phone that make up its power and functionality. The basic component of the phone is called the endoskeleton (endo), and will be distributed, along with developer kits, over the next few months to developers to see what they can build for it.

ara endoskeleton for android developers

The modules themselves can be literally anything the developer can think of. Obvious ones would be improved cameras and extra storage space for music and videos, but there’s potential for so much more. Building a module that improves the processing power of the phone could be of real benefit to someone that wants to run apps that are taxing on the processor. A developer could even build a module that incorporates an entirely new chip, such as the motion chip used in the iPhone 5C, allowing the phone access to a completely new range of abilities.

Phonebloks, an online community dedicated to decreasing the amount of waste the smartphone industry produces, approached Motorola to build a modular phone. The initial idea was a phone that people didn’t need to throw away, as every year more resources are wasted and pollution spread by people just throwing their phones away. The poisons caused by the chemicals and metal in smartphones kill many people every year, and are quite dangerous. Motorola jumped at the chance to help with this issue, and are now working with the Phonebloks community to create their vision, one which they want to change the world.

phonebloks for Android developers

The idea for the phone, at the moment, is to provide the very basics to customers, and let them decide what they want to do with it from there. Some shops are likely to offer ‘starter sets’, including a range of basic modules for new purchases, but the real fun to be had with the phone is installing all of the modules a user feels they need. If someone takes a lot of photos and uses instagram a lot, then a high quality camera, added storage, a better processor, and dedicated Ram would be ideal for them. The core idea behind the phone is to provide a smartphone people can upgrade through modules, but don’t have to sell on for the latest version every year. Ara is set to be a phone you will keep until something physically breaks in it, if you want.

However, where the phone hits a stumbling block, while some smartphone users will research and buy the modules they know they need, others will just live with what they have because they don’t understand why they need to change the them.

How will Ara affect Android developers?

samsung gaming pad controller for Android developers

The biggest problem Ara causes for Android developers is that certain apps will only work on certain phones because of the varying power and functionality levels caused by having many modules. With each new version of a phone from manufacturers, users gain a new smartphone capable of displaying better graphics, taking better photos, and so on. With Ara, users could have any range of modules on their phone, and this will determine which apps they can use, and which ones they can’t. If a game requires a certain processor module for example, only owners of that module can use that game. In the longer term, companies such as Twitter or Facebook could release updates that require specific modules to function, meaning many users won’t be able to access their profiles without buying a new, and potentially expensive, module the phone they’ve already invested a lot of money in.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Android developers might struggle in an age where they need to build for a massive range of phone capabilities, instead of the standard ones set out by the phones available on the market. Testing would become a bit of a nightmare, as apps would need to be tested with every possible combination of module in order to find bugs. Even then there’s the problem of modules conflicting with each other regardless of the requirements of the app.

If Ara is to take off, developers will need to build to some kind of standard they know every phone has. An initial starter set of modules would allow for this, but this creates a new problem. With people keeping the phone for years without buying a new one, the starter set of modules won’t change very often. Motorola will need to release a new standard set of modules each year to allow developers to build bigger and better apps as time goes on, as they can with all other smartphones.

If Motorola don’t do this, they will need to release a new version of Ara year after year, which defeats the point of a modular phone. One possible way around this is combining all of the basic components needed for the phone’s standard set into one module, and releasing a new version of that every year, but will the company be prepared to do this?

How will Ara affect the future of smartphones?

module development for android developers

Smartphone users, particularly fans of the iPhones, are used to being given a new phone to upgrade to every year. The new phone brings improvements in hardware that allow them to do much more than they could with the previous iteration, and for a time they really enjoy it. Then the company teases that users could do more, and slowly feed hints of a new phone from then until release, at which point everyone upgrades to an entirely new phone again. This process has become normal for many, simply because they want to have the latest ‘thing’, and some don’t even understand the differences. These customers won’t take to Ara because they can’t have every latest module in their phone, instead they need to decide what they want their phone to do and cater to it. But after so many years of being told what to do with their phone by manufacturers, a lot of people just won’t get this, and the ingenuity of Ara will go straight over their heads.

Ultimately what the success of Ara, and the whole concept of modular smartphones selling well, relies on, is whether people are willing to move from their favourite smartphone. By now most people have gotten used to a certain phone, and the new versions of it that have been released over the years. If people are willing to move away from, for example, the iPhone and Nexus brands, then Ara could prove to be a major player on the smartphone market. However, Motorola don’t have the same reputation as Google and Apple, and beating this on day one will prove incredibly difficult, especially if early modules leave a lot to be desired. With that said, the concept has already proven to work well with desktop computers, so why wouldn’t people want to do the same with their phone?

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