Disclosure: I have NO insider information on what happened with Google’s Project Ara, which was recently reported by Reuters to be shutting down. The following is one possibility of why the project failed. While I may be wrong, we can all learn a Product Management lesson from the experience.
For the uninitiated, Project Ara was a Google project to develop a modular smartphone where specific components could be swapped for other components. For example, the camera module could be upgraded to one with better specifications; memory storage or battery capacity of the phone could be expanded; or a second screen could be added. In each case you would only buy the new modular components you wanted instead of replacing the entire phone.
From a consumer point of view, I am bummed out. Project Ara looked awesome. With a little imagination, the possibilities were endless! I had even postponed upgrading my three year old dropped-too-many-times Samsung Galaxy S4, waiting for Ara to hit the market. Compared to the minor upgrades and incremental improvements typical of phones these days, this was actually a phone to wait for!
From a Product Management and Marketing consulting point of view, however, I am fascinated.
There are many plausible (and likely correct) reasons given by journalists why Project Ara failed: the product was too bulky and costly to build, and there was a desire to streamline internal hardware operations at the company.
Feature creep is simply the addition of features to a product release not included in the original design.
In the case of Project Ara I wonder if feature creep was responsible for not only modifying the product design for initial release, but if it changed the overall intent of the phone?
Let me explain.
At Project Ara’s inception, the goal was to create an accessible phone that would be utilized by 6 billion people; uniting 1 billion current smartphone users, 5 billion feature phone users, and 1 billion future users not currently connected on the same platform. The starter kit bill of materials was intended to be $50 including a frame, display, battery, low-end CPU, and WiFi.
The vision of creating an accessible modular phone that users could upgrade as they go appears to have drifted into a robust, feature-rich phone as the team identified cutting edge future possibilities, losing site of the original goal. Feature creep set in. The addition of new features to the original design made the product costlier, bulkier, more complicated and longer to deliver, ultimately tanking the project.
I wonder what might have been different if they had focused initially on the goal of making an accessible starter phone through reducing electronic waste and the cost of upgrades? What features would they have eliminated?
Here are a few possibilities:
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the above features and realize they made this a cool and exciting phone. Without these features we would be left with something that is JUST a simple phone. Except this phone could last longer and reduce the electronic waste that plagues the planet. Would this have been so bad?
So, I will continue using my slightly damaged Galaxy S4 while I wait a little longer for a true modular smartphone to bring some excitement to this dull (but amazing) industry.
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