Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will Google deliver on the promise of a Uphone**?

A smart phone you can put together like one’d assemble Lego bricks?

When I looked up the Phonebloks link my niece sent, it all sounded quite phony (pun intended..) to me, a prejudice probably not helped by my ignorance & helped in a large measure by the prominent donate button on the blog-like website. I was cynical to the extent that I didn’t quite believe the site’s claim of Motorola collaborating with them, cross verified this on Motorola site and figured it’s indeed true – apologies Dave (Hakkens), my bad!!

I then stumbled upon Project Ara, a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones which Motorola hopes will turn out to be the Android of Hardware. If I set aside the confusion of if Project Ara is a googlified version of Phonebloks OR if Motorola was indeed working on it for the past one year, as a user the concept of a modular phone that can be customized and reinvented unendingly does sound wow!

Then again, the whole promise is based on open source hardware development & the current phase of the collaboration seems to be still at the user level (Ara Scouts & Volunteers respectively). Assuming it’s rather early to expect the real collaboration of initiating projects to build the endoskeleton/ base & bloks/ modules to start, I’d still think before embarking on development & if indeed Google has to be successful in creating, in its own words, ‘a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem’ through project Ara, the more imminent need is for the creation of the right ecosystem that supports ‘open hardware development’.

Sure there seems to be some semblance of ecosystem out there wherein the open source hardware developers adapt/ use closely representative OSS licenses &/ or use hardware specific licenses like TAPR Open Hardware License. But given the massive commercial potential of the Project Ara & the implications and complications thereon, an open slot seems to exist for a specific purpose license that carefully addresses the scope & limitations of all applicable laws (patent, copyright, distribution et al) & standards and one that simultaneously enables collaboration and protects the commercial interests of the smallest member of the ecosystem - This responsibility I guess Google’s invited upon itself now.

Another possible challenge the previous generation of OS Incubators like Apache till date didn't have to worry too much about but Google/ Motorola will need to address proactively is the issue with potential for conflict of interest** owing to their mutually contrasting roles, one that of an investor funding (& thus part-owning) newer technologies of promising start-up enterprises & another, that of an impartial administrator/ incubator of an open development platform – while Android can be showcased as a precedent, I’m sure Google will admit hardware is a different devil altogether.

**I did a quick check on the portfolio companies of both Google ventures & Motorola Solutions Ventures but did not find any investment into any hardware start-ups – simultaneously reassuring and confounding J - what say Limor “Ladyada” Fried?

While I won’t certainly join the band of naysayers (like here..), I won’t hold my breath either - I will surely watch out though for the promise to materialize.

Afterthought

Why ARA?

Wikipedia offers two options 1) Ara, a southern constellation situated between Scorpius and Triangulum Australe AND 2) Ara, a neotropical genus of macaws with long striking tails, long narrow wings and vividly multi coloured plumage.

I choose Ara the Macaw, since this beautifully assembled by the primordial open-source development platform called evolution! & exotic creature sure looks like it could represent an assorted group of engineers putting together an equally assorted and exotic device. But knowing how project names work, Ara just can’t be a bird alone.. it should be an acronym too…… Android Rear-ending (into hardware) Alliance? :-)

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Disclaimer

**Uphone is a moniker I coined solely for the sake of using in this article that discusses the proposed modular smartphone from the recently launched Project Ara.

1 comment:

Murali Apparaju said...

Google exited Motorola but retained Project Ara!! http://www.gsmarena.com/project_ara_will_remain_in_google_after_the_sale_of_motorola-news-7699.php

Phew..., am I glad the title of this blog post is still relevant :-)