Scholarly article on topic 'From Phonebloks to Google Project Ara. A Case Study of the Application of Sustainable Mass Customization'

From Phonebloks to Google Project Ara. A Case Study of the Application of Sustainable Mass Customization Academic research paper on "Economics and business"

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{"Mass Customization" / "Google Ara" / Phonebloks / "Modular Smartphone" / "Case Study"}

Abstract of research paper on Economics and business, author of scientific article — Stephan Hankammer, Ruth Jiang, Robin Kleer, Martin Schymanietz

Abstract Mass Customization (MC) has become a major trend in the consumer goods market in recent years. However, it is still unclear if MC goods have a positive impact on the environment due to the many influencing factors in comparison to mass produced goods. With Google's “Project Ara”, a modular and customizable smartphone approach is very likely to reach market maturity and its economic, social and ecologic impacts are still unclear. Using a qualitative case study approach, we shed light on its potential economic success. Furthermore, we use the two theoretical concepts of Eco Innovation (EI) and Systemic Innovation (SI) to assess Google Ara's potential to lead to changes in terms of ecologic and social concerns. In our analysis, we show that Project Ara has the potential to outperform its competitors of modular smartphones. We work out that Google's modular approach could lead to a longer useful life of smartphones – or at least for some components. Finally, we affirm Project Ara's general potential for being an SI. Even though Project Ara will very likely not change the complete smartphone market and the behavior of the involved actors, there is a potential for influencing sociocultural behavior in the long tail of the smartphone market.

Academic research paper on topic "From Phonebloks to Google Project Ara. A Case Study of the Application of Sustainable Mass Customization"

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Procedía CIRP 51 (2016) 72 - 78

3rd International Conference on Ramp-up Management (ICRM)

From Phonebloks to Google Project Ara. A Case Study of the Application of Sustainable Mass Customization

Stephan Hankammera*, Ruth Jianga, Robin Kleerab, Martin Schymanietzc

aRWTH Aachen University, Technology and Innovation Management Group, Kackertstr. 7, 52072 Aachen, Germany

bTU Technical University of Berlin, Chair of Technology and Innovation Management, Straße des 17. Juni, 135, 10623 Berlin, Germamy

cFriedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremburg, Chair of Information Systems I - Innovation & Value Creation, Lange Gasse 20,

90403 Nuremberg, Germany

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +49-241-80-99178, fax: +49-241-80-99178. E-mail address:


Mass Customization (MC) has become a major trend in the consumer goods market in recent years. However, it is still unclear if MC goods have a positive impact on the environment due to the many influencing factors in comparison to mass produced goods. With Google's "Project Ara", a modular and customizable smartphone approach is very likely to reach market maturity and its economic, social and ecologic impacts are still unclear. Using a qualitative case study approach, we shed light on its potential economic success. Furthermore, we use the two theoretical concepts of Eco Innovation (EI) and Systemic Innovation (SI) to assess Google Ara's potential to lead to changes in terms of ecologic and social concerns. In our analysis, we show that Project Ara has the potential to outperform its competitors of modular smartphones. We work out that Google's modular approach could lead to a longer useful life of smartphones - or at least for some components. Finally, we affirm Project Ara's general potential for being an SI. Even though Project Ara will very likely not change the complete smartphone market and the behavior of the involved actors, there is a potential for influencing sociocultural behavior in the long tail of the smartphone market.

© 2016 The Authors.PublishedbyElsevierB.V. Thisis an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of the 3rd International Conference on Ramp-up Management (ICRM) Keywords: Mass Customization; Google Ara; Phonebloks; Modular Smartphone; Case Study

1. Introduction

On September 10, 2013, Dutch design student Dave Hakkens released a video about increasing amounts of electronic waste resulting from obsolete electronic devices on YouTube which reached approx. 370 million viewers in the first month. He faulted that when one part is broken-down or outdated the whole device is replaced by the user, even if other important parts are still working or are state of the art. His suggestion to fight this problem and to reduce waste is a customizable smartphone - called Phonebloks - that can be compounded of attachable blocks. A base part, where all of the so-called Bloks are connected to each other enables an easy replacement and customization of all parts of the device. The single Bloks shall be listed in an online Blok-Store where companies or individual developers can offer their Bloks to the end customer [1]. Afterwards, Hakkens announced a

cooperation with US tech company Motorola, which has been taken over by Google in the meantime. At that time, Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) Group had already been working on a modular smartphone concept with the project name "Ara" for one year [2]. Since then, around 150 members from 20 partners from different industries and countries have joined the group, including German audio company Sennheiser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 3D printing companies like 3D Systems, Japanese electronics manufacturer Toshiba and various other smaller chipmakers, industrial designers and engineering companies [3].

The underlying concept of the idea of a customizable and modular smartphone for a mass market can be described with the term Mass Customization (MC). MC has become a major trend in the consumer goods market in recent years. However, it is still unclear if mass customized goods have a positive

2212-8271 © 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of the 3rd International Conference on Ramp-up Management (ICRM) doi:10.1016/j.procir.2016.04.157

impact on the environment due to many influencing factors in comparison to mass produced goods [4]. One of the key components of MC is a modular product architecture based on standardized parts that allows individualized products for every customer [5]. With Google's "Project Ara", a modular and customizable smartphone approach is very likely to reach market maturity and its economic, social and ecologic impacts are still unclear. This gives us the opportunity to analyze multiple research questions. It has to be proven whether Dave Hakkens' idea of introducing a modular and customizable smartphone really contributes to reducing the environmental impact of the consumer electronics market. Therefore, in a first step, we assess whether Project Ara has the potential for being a successful new business model. How does Project Ara take advantage of MC as a part of its business model and how does it differ from other modular or customizable smartphone concepts? In a second step, we analyze the environmental potential resulting from this MC approach. Here, we use the concept of Eco Innovation (EI) to evaluate Project Ara's potential for being able to lead to a more sustainable use of resources. In a third step, we evaluate how Project Ara can initiate radical influences on social or cultural behavior making use of the theoretical concept of Systemic Innovation (SI).

To answer these research questions, we used a qualitative research design. Firstly, we reviewed secondary data based on an evaluation of Google's and Phonebloks' webpages, videos and other materials from development conferences, Ara's twitter account and newspaper articles related to Ara. Secondly, we conducted and evaluated a set of six semi-structured interviews with experts sharing their distinct perspectives on Project Ara.

Our study is structured as follows: First, we give a theoretical introduction to the principles of MC, EI, and SI. In a second step, we introduce the case and explain our research methodology. In a third step, we discuss the case study in a three stage process: (1) business model, (2) EI potential and (3) SI potential. Finally, we give a summary of the key findings of the case study, its limitations and further research opportunities.

2. Theoretical Foundations

2.1. Mass Customization and Modularity

The term MC was first popularized by Joseph Pine, who defined MC as "developing, producing, marketing and delivering affordable goods and services with enough variety and customization that nearly everyone finds exactly what they want" [6]. MC combines low costs of mass production with the flexibility of individual customization. The objective of the concept of MC is to produce and offer goods and services meeting individual customer's needs with near mass production efficiency [7].

One essential part of any MC strategy is modularity [8]. Modularity is an approach in which products are assembled from a set of standardized constituent units. Combining different sets of such standardized units enable various end-products and variations [9]. Compared to an integrated product design, the effort for a change in a modular product architecture is minimal. The modification of a functional element can be

reached by changing one single component. Modifications of functional elements within a modular design can be realized independently and do not affect the entire product design.

The evolution of MC is made possible by the rapid growth of information technology, narrowing the gap between customer and manufacturer [10]. In the last three decades, the main goal of most corporations was to increase their shareholder value [11]. However, there is factual evidence that companies which focused on the consumer have constantly outperformed companies that put their focus primarily on their shareholders [12].

2.2. Eco Innovation and Systemic Innovation

For assessing the ecologic potential of Google's new modular smartphone concept, we decided to make use of the theoretical concept of EI. According to Welck et al. (2010), an innovation is an EI when "all relevant innovative technologies supporting the protection of environment and the sustainability of natural resources" are considered [13]. The difference between a "standard" innovation and EI is that simple innovations just improve economic or environmental activities and not both of them simultaneously. Thus, an EI is only achieved if there is no trade-off required between economic and environmental improvements in the innovation process [14]. Carillo-Hermosilla et al. (2009) propose four key aspects contributing to the achievement of EI: User integration, product service, product/process design, and governmental framework conditions [15]. EI can be seen as an evolution of already existing technologies/processes, etc. Hence, EIs do not necessarily lead to a complete change of a system, but improve it in a more sustainable way [16].

A kind of change that is more radical than the change initiated from an EI is an SI. SIs shall not only take single modification into consideration to resolve a challenging problem, because "[...] it is not a matter of solving an isolated problem, but of overhauling the entire system" [17]. In this sense, SIs are not determined by the creation of new technologies and business opportunities, but merely by social changes initiated by an innovation. Hence, an SI requires far-reaching consequences on the interaction between the infrastructural, technological, economical and sociocultural parts of the whole system and each of these elements alone [18]. In other words, an SI focuses on the creation of new business models that refer to customers' needs. Very often, there is a mutual interference between the interests of the public and private sector. An efficient cooperation between both parties is a cornerstone for an SI and serves a driver for the establishment of an innovative process [17].

However, SIs do not automatically lead to a positive change of the system. SIs could result in monopolistic market forms, negative consequences on the ecological system, resulting in social harms or accomplishing public risks [19].

3. Case study design

3.1. The case of Google's project Ara

After the idea of a modular smartphone arose through Phonebloks, Google intensified efforts towards developing such a device. They released an updated Module Developers Kit (MDK) showing specifications such as the phone's hardware being based on a frame, the endoskeleton, where single modules can be added to [20].

Furthermore, Google held two developer conferences until Q1 2015. At the first conference in April 2014, the Head of Project Ara, Paul Eremenko, announced January 2015 as first release date for the smartphone at a price of around 50 US-Dollars for the basic phone version. During the second conference in January 2015, the so-called "Spiral 2"-prototype was shown to the developers, however, with limited functionalities (booting properly) [21].

Google's plan was to go further until Q2 2015 with the release of an advanced Spiral 3 prototype (improved robustness and 3G phone calls). Also, module hot-swapping should be ensured. To get past prototype status and towards first public release, the next development steps were to provide the phone with daylong battery, state of the art camera and 4G and LTE networks (target was Q4 2015, followed by the market pilot in Puerto Rico) [22].

Ara Configurator y y y y

Fig. 1. Ara Configurator User Interface Map [22].

To support easy set-up of the smartphone, Google developed the Ara configurator app. As shown in Figure 1, it allows easy multi dimension bottom-up configuration with one-hand gestures, starting with the endoskeleton as a base. The next vertical layer allows choosing specific modules and customizable shells (e.g. with graphics or pictures), while the top one shows the customized smartphone and the home screen of the horizontal market layer. Finally, the specs layer provides some technical information like battery life or selected storage size and offers the possibility to purchase the smartphone. For customers who do not want to or are not able to decide between specific modules, the configurator app will offer the Phone Maker feature that suggests a configuration based on user input, e.g. from social networks or after answering a few questions at the start of configuration [23].

A working Ara prototype with hot swappable modules was presented to the public at the 2015 Google I/O in May [24]. The Puerto Rico market pilot was later called off in favor of a US location [25].

3.2. Interview design

In this paper, we shed light on the economic, environmental and social perspectives of MC. The development of a new modular and customizable smartphone at Google is a promising opportunity and an interesting case for assessing these perspectives. The research strategy of a case study offers the investigator a portfolio of different techniques "covering the logic of design, data collection [...], and specific approaches to data analysis" [26]. To reach profound knowledge of an investigated case, it has to be observed directly within its environment, relevant documents have to be analyzed in these surroundings [27] and involved persons need to be questioned for a better understanding of the case [28].

Due to the early stage of development, no empirical data is available. Thus, our case study is based on qualitative data. Besides the data used for introducing the case, we conduct and evaluate a set of six interviews with experts sharing various perspectives on Project Ara. In these interviews, we especially focused on linking the theoretical concepts and ideas of MC, EI and SI to the practical insights of Project Ara. Our expert panel is composed as shown in Table 1. In addition to the six interviews we conducted, two publically available interviews with Paul Eremenko, Head of Project Ara, were evaluated.

The interviews were structured as follows:

(1) the first section is about Project Ara itself,

(2) the second part focuses on the general impact of modular smartphones and their usage, and

(3) the third part asks about the environmental and social impact of such modular architectures.

Table 1. List of interview partners

# Interviewee last name Field of expertise Relevance to the case

1 Anonymous German journalist Expert for smartphone market

2 Lichtnecker Head of GE Finance IT infrastructure for Benelux & Germany Viewpoint of corporate customer

3 Malkic Phonebloks forum user Lead user knowledge

4 Cummings Phonebloks forum user Lead user knowledge

5 Steiner Researcher on MC Academic assessment

6 Hakkens Phonebloks founder Special insights into the project

While the first set of questions should help to review the success chances of Project Ara from a practical viewpoint, the second one is necessary to evaluate the potential of initiating deeper changes coming along with an SI. The questions in the final block are important for the assessment of the environmental impacts and therefore the answer why Project Ara can be an EI that has the potential to lead to a more sustainable use of mobile devices.

4. Discussion

4.1. Assessment of Google Ara's Business Model and cross case analysis of other modular phone concepts

Google is using an MC strategy as an important component of their proposed business model: self-customization opportunity is granted to the customer after initial purchase of an Ara device with the possibility to remove and add modules. However, modularity also plays an important role at the production stage and enables individualization. In this context, Project Ara allows individual modularization by focusing on the development of the endoskeleton as a base module. The outsourcing of module development and production enables both, Google and module developers, to boost their rate of innovation and benefit from the knowledge in their respective area of expertise.

Therefore, both, Google and module manufacturers, have the potential to profit from cost savings through economies of scale in the production process due to a low variety of different products. Furthermore, this specialization can enable cost savings from learning curve effects that are probable to result from experience gains in the new field. In addition, Google will very likely profit financially from the success of the module developers using the common online store and splitting of revenues [29]. This hardware store is likely to be equivalent to Google's Play Store for apps, where currently 30 % of the revenues go directly to Google as operating fees [30]. Another advantage of MC that Google can potentially achieve with Project Ara are interaction benefits. Direct communication during the configuration process between Google and customers creates valuable information about the consumer's preferences and demands. In this context, Google plays an important role in the evaluation of the collected data, as it is their key competence to collect and exploit data. Without exception, all of the interviewed experts stated that Project Ara has the clear potential to be a success.

Consistent with the theory of mass customized products, Steiner [29] sees a competitive price for the product as determining factor for a favorable product launch. The price of an Ara phone can contain a premium for individualization, but it needs to be comparable to a regular smartphone with similar features. Despite the high potential for being successful, several experts anticipate some difficulties in serving the mass market for two reasons: First, design and haptics of Project Ara are going to have disadvantages owing to the modular product architecture [31]. Eremenko (2014) stated that there is an overhead in size of approximately 25 % to reach the same functionality of a regular smartphone with a modular architecture [32]. Therefore, the smartphone market expert does not expect Project Ara as preferable choice for users that demand light-weight and handy smartphones [31]. Second, the large variety of choices available might not be very appealing to the average user just needing basic functionalities. This group does not want to deal with configuration processes and the paradox of choice [29, 31, 33] Consequently, the success of Project Ara will not be decided by the average user in the mass market, even if Google tries to reach them with special kits and an intelligent configuration process, but in the field of users that

search for deep individualization or special applications that have not been realized on a mobile platform yet. However, focusing on a large variety of different niches according to the theory of the Long Tail [34] instead of the mass market can be a promising strategy [29].

Moving on, when assessing the potential of Google Ara's modular smartphone concept, it is necessary to review and compare it to other similar approaches. Thus, we briefly highlight four other concepts and then shortly discuss Google Ara's positioning against those. The four other concepts we found during our search were as follows: The PuzzlePhone by Circular Devices (comes with three exchangeable key modules: the heart (containing battery and secondary electronics), the spine (consisting of an LCD display) and the brain (the main electronics)); The Eco-Mobius by ZTE (has four different interchangeable modules: LCD, core, camera and battery, they allow exchange and customization of the CPU, Graphic Processor Unit (GPU), Random-Access Memory (RAM) and Read-Only Memory (ROM)); The Vsenn device (expected to have three replaceable parts: camera, battery and CPU/RAM; and the Moto X by Motorola (can be designed by the customer in more than 2000 different combinations. The design customization takes place in an online configurator called Moto Maker and gives the customer the opportunity to choose from various materials and hues).

From today's perspective, the PuzzlePhone seems to be the only serious competition in releasing a modular smartphone. In contrast to the other competitors, they already released information on the forward plan. Vsenn did not publish any important details about their device besides the number of modules and the supported OSs. The ZTE Eco-Mobius was a design study that will probably never get to market. Beyond current project status, outsourcing of module development and production, which is not included in any of the other cases, is another point that gives Google an edge. The high grade of possible individualization in Google Ara, moreover, is underpinned by a flexible amount of plugin positions based on the design. In contrast, PuzzlePhone and Vsenn only offer three slots for exchangeable modules. Malkic (2015) states that such hardware restrictions prevent a deep individualization and, thus, is the main drawback of these two concepts [35]. The only approach that also offers the possibility for individualization with a high amount of choices is the MotoMaker/MotoX concept. But they only offer design customization. Project Ara outperforms this approach.

4.2. Assessment of the potential to initiate Eco Innovation

The main intention of the original Phonebloks concept was to promote a more sustainable use of resources through modular consumer electronics [1]. Google transformed this idea into a business model concept with a product that is now almost market ready. Considering the fundamentals of EI, Project Ara is in line with the theoretical framework as follows:

Firstly, the Project Ara business model includes co-design during the configuration process: the customer can select parts he/she requires and does not need to buy a preconfigured smartphone with functions he/she perceives as redundant [29, 36]. Thus, the possible reduction of not needed modules and

functions constitutes a first element of a possible eco innovative characteristic.

The second ecologic advantage is directly linked to the enlargement of the product life or at least of singular smartphone modules. The ability to replace parts and not needing to buy a whole new smartphone in case of damage or outdated functionality leads to a positive assessment of the effects on a more sustainable use of resources [31, 35-37]. In the ordinary case of a broken part that would usually lead to a complete replacement of a conventional smartphone, an Ara smartphone gives the user the ability to keep the working parts in his/her smartphone by exchanging just the module causing the defect. Consequently, there is the potential of increasing the average lifetime of the smartphone [29, 31, 35-37].

Thirdly, the modular design enables module reuse at the end of life by a second user. In this way, the demand for new components and thereby the overall use of resources is decreased. The secondary market for modules - which is communicated by Google as a possibility to improve the consumers' environmental footprint [38] could facilitate such a circular usage of modules. While huge environmental benefits compared to today's secondary marketplaces for used consumer electronics are doubted [29], a special market or platform for reselling and interchanging modules will at least simplify this process.

Nevertheless, our case study reveals non-coherence with the framework of EI in the following way: Firstly, rebound effect could undermine possible sustainability benefits [29]. Rebound effects contradict the assumption that an increased efficiency leads to a lower consumption [39]. In case of Project Ara there is the possibility of an overcompensation of the positive environmental effects of a longer smartphone life by increased replacement periods of single modules. High replacement rates could consequently lead to a decrease or even complete elimination of the EI potential of Project Ara.

Google's commitment regarding ecologic objectives determines a second reason for doubting the EI potential of Project Ara. Google - other than the initial Phonebloks idea -did not develop Project Ara because of environmental considerations, but because of business opportunities [29]. The occurrence of trade-offs between ecologic and economic aspects cannot be excluded. Thus, we consider Google's motivation as not entirely consistent with the principles of EI.

In conclusion, Project Ara can be seen as an EI grounded on its potential to have a positive effect on the lifetime of smartphones or at least of parts of it. However, rebound effects need to be taken into consideration. They can reduce or even overcompensate the positive impact from a longer useful life. Thus, the potential of Google's Project Ara to be a successful EI is significantly lower than initially targeted by Phonebloks.

4.3. Assessment of the potential to initiate a Systemic Innovation

In 2.2 we stated that an SI implies a more radical change than an EI. An SI needs to imply far-reaching consequences on the interaction between the economical, infrastructural, technological, and sociocultural parts of the whole system and each of these elements itself.

For Google, new earning opportunities arise from Project Ara's business model. Similar to software applications that are often given away for free and become profitable through data collection and analysis, there is a potential for the hardware market to experience a comparable development [31, 36]. Google is expected to cover its expenses for the development of Project Ara and manufacturing of the endoskeleton in their field of expertise: data collection and monetization [29]. Hence, the core of Project Ara's business model constitutes a far-reaching change of the economical part of the whole system.

The involvement of a theoretically unlimited number of parties in the module development increases the likelihood of initiating an SI. Project Ara has a large potential to change the current actors in the market arising from new applications that can be provided by specialized companies entering the smartphone market for the first time [29]. Module manufacturers could profit from customer integration into development processes, because the success of a module will not be decided based on a smartphone manufacturer who assembles a standard smartphone, but by multiple end customers or user firms. This assumption is in line with the principles of SI to focus on customers' needs which should be matched and satisfied by already existing technologies.

Although Project Ara was not designed for a multi-platform compatibility for reason of the concept's focus, Project Ara's Leader Paul Eremenko assesses this feasible usage on different devices a high potential. This estimation is based on the trend towards the Internet of Things (IoT) [32, 40]. Devices like smartphones etc. shall not only process data on their own, but also be connected to the internet to enable a mutual communication [40]. With this background, modular smartphones open up new possibilities to the customer by connecting any kind of module (e.g. sensors) easily and conveniently to the mobile internet and allow to upload and access data from every location with a mobile data connection [29]. An interchange of modules between smartphone, tablet, desktop PC or even other completely different devices could be possible in the future.

Through an interaction of devices that were not connected to each other or to the internet before, Project Ara could initiate a radical change in the market for special applications [29, 35]. Special application modules like glucose or radiation meters could help a large amount of users in their daily lives [41]. Eremenko (2014) attributes a high potential to personal medical diagnostic and environmental monitoring devices that alter the way of health care diagnostics and detection in developing countries [42]. These kinds of use cases have the potential to influence sociocultural behaviors through the facilitation of complex applications that can only be performed by special devices today.

Nonetheless, the expert interviews revealed that Project Ara's potential to initiate a radical market revolution is low, because it will not affect the traditional mass market for smartphones immensely [29]. Significant influences on sociocultural behavior on the average smartphone user are evaluated as improbable [31]. In accordance with Hakkens (2015) Project Ara is not a revolution of the smartphone but an evolutional approach that helps "the smartphone to sustain the future" [41]. However, in the long tail of the smartphone market

where users demand special applications the SI potential is high. If the concept succeeds in the ecosystem of special applications, Project Ara has a great opportunity to influence the way people with special requirements live and use their smartphones for a more convenient life.

5. Conclusion

In this paper we conducted a case study of Google's modular smartphone concept Project Ara - from its predecessor concept Phonebloks to the announcement in 2015 to cancel the market pilot in Puerto Rico - using a qualitative research approach.

In a first step, we connected the fundamentals of MC to the insights gained during the case study to evaluate how MC is applied in Project Ara's business model. The development of a modular product architecture - where Google provides the platform and developers the modules - allows a focus of the involved players on their areas of expertise. Consequently, each of them does not have to produce a large amount of different modules, but concentrates on a small number of standardized products. This offers the potential to benefit from economies of scale and scope. Furthermore, this approach will probably offer a large variety of different modules to the customers and satisfy their demand for individualized products. Besides these positive aspects of MC, Google has to face a complex distribution process and a risk of overwhelming customers due to the high amount of possible choices that are available. Compared to other customizable smartphone approaches, Project Ara outperforms its competitors. Our qualitative study revealed, that Project Ara has the potential to be a success. Especially the long tail of the smartphone market where customers with special applications are addressed offers a high potential.

In a second step, we analyzed whether Project Ara can be seen as an EI. We revealed positive environmental benefits related to the co-design element of Project Ara's business model. Furthermore, we discovered the potential to increase the product life of smartphones - or at least of smartphone components. However, we noted that positive repercussions from the modular product architecture may be overcompensated by a rebound effect through shorter replacement cycles of modules.

In a third step, we assessed the potential of Project Ara to initiate an SI. It turned out that Project Ara is likely to not change the entire smartphone market and the behavior of the involved actors. Nonetheless, there is a potential for influencing sociocultural behavior in the long tail of the smartphone market: (1) Project Ara can influence the life of customers who are searching for a mobile solution of special applications, like health care diagnostics and analyses. (2) The way customers pay for hardware can change similarly as it already happened to software. In the future, hardware can be offered cheaper and revenues for the producers can be realized by data collection and evaluation. (3) The trend towards the IoT can be accelerated through the interconnection of different devices via mobile internet connections and allow crowdsourcing of data to evaluate for example medical data patterns.

6. Limitations and future research

At the current point of time, this research paper is grounded on a low degree of available information. It can only give a tendency for the future potential of Project Ara because a more detailed assessment requires additional information about pricing, recycling solutions, etc. Many of these influencing factors will not become apparent or may change until the launch of a market pilot and until the worldwide rollout. For instance, Google cancelled the 2015 Puerto Rico market pilot and announced a reroute to some US locations in 2016. Furthermore, there may be a change in the product architecture - away from using electro permanent magnets for connecting the modules to the endoskeleton [25].

Future research should put its focus on the following: First, assessing how Project Ara is implementing the different elements of MC should be carried out after product rollout. Thereby, a real life dimension could be added to the theoretical background and expert opinions provided by this paper. Second, further research should pay attention to the impacts of modular smartphones on the system level. It might be interesting to investigate which kind of special applications achieve a breakthrough and how they affect sociocultural behaviors. Third, it could be studied how a modular product structure of consumer electronics contributes to the distribution of interconnected devices that support the current trend towards the IoT. Fourth, to quantify and rate the impacts on the environmental perspective it is necessary to carry out a detailed Lifecycle Assessment. In such an assessment, various scenarios might be tested considering different life cycles of regular smartphones in comparison to an Ara phone. Finally, the delays and difficulties Google is facing in the development process of Google Ara can be seen as an indicator for the radicalness of the innovation. Both, from a manufacturing and customer point of view, introducing a modular and customizable smartphone is a challenging endeavor. Several processes need to be reconsidered, from ramp-up to final roll-out. This represents an interesting path for future research as in this special case of modular smartphone architecture, these processes need to be aligned for both, Google as the phone manufacturer and the module manufacturers. Coordination and process optimization will most likely play an important role.


The research leading to these results received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) within the second call of ERA-NET ECO-INNOVERA (SMC Excel project funded by BAFU (Switzerland), BMBF (Germany), and TUBITAK (Turkey). For detailed information visit Furthermore, the presented research received funding from the German Research Foundation DFG as part of the Research Training Group "Ramp-Up Management - Development of Decision Models for the Production Ramp-Up". More information about the Research Training Group can be found on or by contacting the authors of this publication.


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