Google’s Betting That Custom Skins Will Make Its Modular Phone Sexy

We’re a step closer to seeing what the future of smartphones—as envisioned by Google—might look like. Today, at its second Module Developers Conference, Google unspooled some details about its long-awaited second Project Ara prototype phone, called Sprial 2. And it’s looking pretty colorful.

From the beginning, the promise of Project Ara has been a new kind of phone: a modular one that can be upgraded or fixed in piecemeal, so that a cracked screen doesn’t force anyone into buying an entirely new phone. You just get a new screen (or upgraded camera, or battery, and so on) and snap that new tile into a skeleton frame, where electro-permanent magnets hold it in place. Now, in a video from the conference, it looks like Spiral 2 won’t just let you tune up the camera tile, it’ll let you put a picture of your dog’s face on the back of it, too. It’s infinite personalization.

Ara’s chintzy examples of how this will work look like a bunch Emojis sprung to life, but at its core, it’s a push to prove to consumers exactly how personal this device will be. Technically, this can happen because the modules will be made from injection-molded polycarbonate plastic that can withstand high resolution printing. (Google initially planned on 3-D printing parts). Philosophically, it adds a new shiny layer of customized newness to every tile a consumer might buy along the way. Moreover, it allows the phone to feel new, simply by swapping out some colored tiles. That would seem to be a key detail, since, if it’s really going to last longer than a more traditional phone would, people have to like the phone itself for longer.

This strategy of having lots of colors and customization options didn’t work for Samsung’s Moto X phone, nor did it do wonders for the Apple 5c. But then again, the Google Ara could be something else entirely. The level of personalization, as the video hints, could be unprecedented—and a lust-worthy detail in developing markets such as Asia, where customized cases and charms are ubiquitous. But out of the gate, Project Ara will appeal most to geeks to want to tailor their tech experience to the minutiae of their needs. This is one more way to make that possible. So who knows? Maybe it’ll be a hit—provided the phone can power on.

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