The most exciting thing about Google’s Project Ara, a modular phone that customers can build and rebuild to their own specifications indefinitely, isn’t that it’s so customizable. What’s really crazy about Ara is that it looks like a clunky toy when compared to smartphones currently on the market—and my bet? People will devour it regardless.
This is the year that smartphones change. Apple is finally releasing an iPhone with a larger screen, catering to emerging international markets. And this comes about a year after the company’s debut of an unapologetically plastic model. Meanwhile, Apple and other companies are scrambling to put out flashier, more unique devices in order to stand out.
First-time smartphone buyers are on the decline in the UK and the US. To seduce existing customers from one brand to another, smartphone makers need to entice them with the exotic. Motorola’s Moto X offers personalized finishes and color combinations, Apple released a model in gold, and Samsung will soon offer a Galaxy S5 covered in crystals—a questionable choice usually reserved for removable cases.
Gadi Amit, principal designer and founder of NewDealDesign, has created the look of the FitBit, Whistle, Sproutling, and now Ara. “It was considered impossible,” he told Quartz, and he still thinks that many people “in the know” are claiming Ara will flop. Creating a phone that works like a pile of smart legos poses many challenges—for example, that he cost of creating so many modular components would be too high for the company. But the biggest concern was that the phone would look bad. “You have to really focus on the mechanical side, to make this work,” Amit says, “So keeping aesthetics and design quality in mind is a formidable challenge.”
Since the release of the first iPhone nearly seven years ago, smartphones have followed its example of smooth, seamless design. Even BlackBerry (which stubbornly maintains a keyboard-touting holdout for the older executive set) now sells a premium model, the Z30, that follows in the iPhone’s polished, gently curved footsteps. But Amit thinks we’re ready for a change. “What Apple has done phenomenally, and Samsung has done less phenomenally,” Amit says, “is to make a product from precious materials, well-finished from the outside. It’s refined. There are no lines. Remember when Apple built an antenna into the case of the iPhone? That was phenomenal. And all of that is beautiful, but it’s one aesthetic.”
Amit could have made Ara look more like an iPhone. Some of the early proposed designs, he says, were a “normal” looking phone that the user had to crack open when they wanted to switch components out. “It was like an old PC,” Amit says. “It’s an empty box that you fill with whatever you want.” But ultimately, the winning option was a complete departure from the sleek, line-less competitors: The spine covered in external modules may seem a bit clumsy to some, Amit says, but he thinks it’s “appealing without being a monolith.”
Of course, most of Ara’s early adopters will be more excited about the customizable aspects of the phone, which will allow them to choose a larger battery in favor of more memory, a slightly lower performance camera instead of the priciest option, and so on. “Just like everyone can write an app for a phone,” Amit says, “now anyone can make a little piece of hardware. We’re breaking out of this cycle of replacing a phone entirely every couple of years.”
But he does think that the act of customizing Ara will appeal on more levels than that of pure functionality. “People like feeling like they’ve co-created something,” he says. “Think of Ikea. If you build furniture yourself, you’re more attached to it. It’s all the same sofa, but you project a much higher value on an object when you build it yourself.”
Ara is rumored for an early 2015 release, and the basic build could cost as little as $50. Adding the most expensive modules could run the cost up to 10 times that, but any customization is, of course, entirely up to you.