Project Ara may be no more.
As Reuters reported last week, Google has suspended–and possibly killed–its plan to make a modular smartphone with interchangeable components. The move is curious–especially considering that in May at its annual I/O conference, the company restarted its Ara hype after more than a year of silence, loudly proclaiming that about 30 people inside the company’s Advanced Technologies and Projects lab, or ATAP, were using Ara as their primary phone. But at the same time, the move isn’t surprising.
Project Ara started at Motorola Mobility under Regina Dugan, the former head of Darpa, and when Google acquired Motorola, Dugan remained in charge. But this spring, not long before Google’s conference, she left the company for Facebook, and she talked about the obstacles faced by Ara and ATAP. “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,” she wrote in a blog post, addressing her former colleagues inside ATAP. “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.”
Those words carry an added meaning when you consider she was leaving ATAP for Facebook. Facebook is a much smaller company than Google, and it doesn’t yet have the same–ahem–“organizational challenges.” The death of Ara is another sign that Google is struggling to maintain its innovative edge as it morphs into a giant corporation. When you’re big, it’s so much harder to be nimble, to make new things work among all that things that already do. At Facebook, Dugan is running a team called Building 8. And it’s a lot like, well, ATAP. The difference is that Facebook is still small enough and nimble enough to foster an environment where this kind of thing has a better chance of succeeding.
Of course, Google realizes it’s getting awfully big, and that’s why it has split itself into many different companies, all under a new umbrella called Alphabet. The idea is to spin off its “moonshots” into largely separate operations run a lot like individual startups. In theory, these companies will be more nimble, and odds are, Google will eventually offer stock in these smaller outfits, as a better way of keeping and attracting talent. But this too is hard. Google Fiber, the company’s ultra-high-speed Internet service, is now run by a separate Alphabet company, called Access, and rumors indicate the new company is now under much greater pressure to balance the books.
What’s more, you can only spin off so many things. ATAP and Project Ara are far more experimental than Google Fiber. They’re even less likely to make money. “The approach went against the grain of everything we know about smartphones,” says Jan Dawson, a tech market analyst and consultant. “The big problem in smartphones is you need scale to be successful and profitable. Apple and Samsung are the only companies that make really good margins, and everyone else struggles with scale.” So, it stayed inside Google. And it died.
Look, some things are gonna die and some are gonna live. ATAP is building other stuff, and maybe that will fare better. But the reality is that when a company gets to be the size of the Google, the smaller stuff has a harder time surviving. Alphabet can help. As Dawson says, with Alphabet, Google seems to be saying, people “can’t just keep tinkering in the corner, and hope that no one discovers what the true financial state of things is.” And that’s about right. But at the same time, you do need people tinkering in the corner.