Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This is Your Industry on Signal: Project Ara Debuts an Open Approach to "Moon Shot" Product Innovation

The Signal Economy enables  Moon Shot opportunities.
In the beginning, most major innovations that change the world are born ugly. The Wright brothers' first airplane had a tiny home-baked motor on a hand-built airframe that was little more than a kite and that barely lifted off the ground for just a few seconds. Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone was little more than a fussy laboratory curiosity when his first urgent words summoned his assistant Thomas Watson from a nearby room. Alan Turing's first modern computer was a rat's next of vacuum tubes and clacking switches. And in spite of the billions thrown at the goal of reaching the moon, the first vehicle to land on it had a skin hardly thicker than a roll of aluminum cooking foil and a computer that could barely keep from burping terminally on the data flowing in from the spacecraft's sensors. Yet the technologies and methods that flowed from these pioneering efforts were transformative in every way.

The Real Deal - a functioning Project Ara phone
So it seems that the +Google ATAP project team's debut today of the first semi-functional Project Ara prototype smartphone was less than auspicious and yet completely monumental. The well-worn pilot phone had a cracked screen and it wouldn't boot, though it was promised to be more in operable shape later during this first Project Ara developers' conference. So no, there was not a "Steve Jobs moment" of a new generation of hardware springing to life in front of an audience. But here's the key point: while the iPhone was the first mobile phone that integrated consumer-oriented content and touchscreen capabilities with truly Web-capable software, it was largely a repackaging of the same software and hardware capabilities that had existed for years. With the Project Ara phone, what you get is a device that completely reinvents both how electronic devices are designed and operated and how products in general are made at scale.

Project Ara phones unite modular components
You may have seen how Project Ara phones are composed of "blocks" of hardware that slot into a stainless steel backbone and snap into place magnetically, getting power and connectivity without wires. It's a form factor that +Dave Hakkens was first promoting as the founder of PhoneBloks and is being brought to market now by Google's ATAP team - a small team from Motorola Mobility that Google is hanging on to as it spins off its other Moto assets to Lenovo. We've seen mockups of this concept before, much as we saw sketches and models of moon rockets and spacecraft before one ever made its way to a launch pad. Well, the first test rocket for Project Ara has hit the launch pad. And like the "moon shot" projects of the 1960s, the timeline for Project Ara to become a reality is aggressive - as in next-year beta aggressive.

There are a few things that make Project Ara a monumental effort that cannot be ignored by anyone trying to keep abreast of how The Signal Economy is changing both how we publish and how products and services of all kinds are going to evolve through the availability of universal networking connecting everything:
  • It's the birth of devices as a network. 
    Project Ara modular chassis and components
    We know about how the Internet enables any machine to communicate with any other machine anywhere else in the world on a common network that's defined by open standards. That's an idea that Project Ara is bringing to mobile devices, using a networking concept called UniPro that enables modular components to network at high speeds using M-PHY device communications standards. In short, any module on a Project Ara device can communicate with any other module at a variety of data transmission speeds from 10 KB/s to 6GB/s, depending on data and power requirements. Computers have always had hard-wired "bus" circuits to enable peripheral components to communicate with a central processor, but UniPro enables any component to communicate with any other component on a peer basis. Project Ara phones are therefore the first computer devices that are designed to work collaboratively as a unit with a collection of independently produced components. The Project Ara chassis provides inductive power and capacitive data coupling and configuration management, and the little chips in the chassis do the rest. With so many "smart" special-purpose mircoprocessors available today, this can only help to accelerate innovation.
  • It's the birth of massively customized manufacturing.

    Project Ara targets mass customization for the billions.
    Project Ara is a nifty product concept, but it would have very little ultimate impact on the market if it wound up being manufactured like other mobile devices. Big manufacturers develop and assemble hard-wired components that can be pushed out by the billions, and then thrown out when some of a unit's key components cannot keep up with the pace of change. If Project Ara used the same techniques, it would take massive scale of sales for any individual component to have a chance of reaching a marketplace. Instead, Google intends to introduce the techniques of 3D printing for the first time to enable the manufacturing of Project Ara modules and components at any scale - a working prototype or niche market module can be produced by the billions in the same 3D printing facility.

    At first 3D printing was thought of as a customization tool for the looks
    Project Ara #d-printed electronic components
    of the Project Ara component casings, but at the developers' conference they showed electronic components for miniature antennas that had been 3D printed. So the very guts of what makes up a Project Ara phone can be developed and printed as highly scalable components also. Just as the benefits of Henry Ford's assembly line were not quite appreciated at first by Ford's competitors, this matching of highly scalable 3D printing of products for a highly modular and customizable mass market product is likely to set a standard for product design and creation that will echo through virtually every manufacturing industry in the world. The Project Ara phone is not just about revolutionizing mobile devices - it's about revolutionizing how things come to be made and sold in general. Just as the Web can make any content go viral, Project Ara can make any signal-processing component go viral, leaving traditional mass marketing behind as a dwindling art. Key hint: Google intends to sell Project Ara standard-issue phones everywhere, but will sell custom modules via the +Google Play store.
  • It's the birth of scalable "moonshotting" as a business standard.

    Google has taken on many advanced product development projects, from
    Project Ara aims for "demonstrations at convincing scale"
    its self-driving autos to +Project Loon global networking via high-altitude baloons to +Project Glass computer, so "moonshot" goals are hard-wired into its corporate culture. Project Ara is similar to many of these sorts of projects in that it has been developed using a small core project team of a just a few people working with a network of collaborators and suppliers, but notably they committed to the project on a short-term basis (two years). Their goal is not just to do research or feasibility studies but to deliver "demonstrations at convincing scale that have to retire all the key technical, business and market risks," according to +Paul Eremenko, Project Ara's team leader.  Eremenko notes that " innovation under time pressure is better innovation," and certainly Project Ara will be a great test of this concept.

    But these techniques are well proven in other arenas. Eremenko and other Project Ara
    Project Ara retools military tech savvy for global industry
    participants come from the U.S. government's DARPA research and development agency for advanced military technologies. DARPA research gave birth to the technologies that formed the first Internet, amongst other things, and was born in an era in which the U.S. was taking on its first huge "demonstration at convincing scale" - the manned moon mission program. But now, what was once a technique used to get billion-dollar government investments in massive, throw-away goals reached is now being applied to core business and manufacturing goals. Getting the making of things back in the control of independent innovators to drive The Signal Economy has become a strategic goal for the global economy - and Google, with the assistance of U.S. government know-how, wants to be at the center of that economic change. 
OSVehicle - Will Project Ara accelerate other industries?
So what Project Ara delivers is not just nifty mobile gizmos, but a whole new way of doing innovation. In The Signal Economy, being able to understand markets at scale rapidly and to respond to them rapidly and in a highly tailored fashion is a given and an absolute necessity. Like Project Ara, it takes the willingness and the ability to throw out everything that you knew about how to approach a market - right down to core issues of supply chain management and the very way that you assemble things - to create platforms that will deliver innovation more rapidly and effectively from wherever innovation may arise. While it takes some risk to attack markets this way, the techniques and tools of Project Ara demonstrate that reverse-engineering from an appropriate goal - ""demonstrations at convincing scale that have to retire all the key technical, business and market risks," - can create urgencies that develop superior solutions in much less time. At the same time, the concept of networked platforms as a core product development concept may gain a marketable proof of concept that actually makes money sooner rather than later - something that projects like OSVehicle are aiming for, but perhaps with more complexity and somewhat less urgency. 

Your industry - whatever it is - is going to be targeted by the technologies and the techniques of The Signal Economy sooner rather than later, and the net results will look like the output of Project Ara sooner rather than later. That means being able to move fast, lean and mean and at scale with new ideas gathered from bright people interpreting signal from people, places and things before someone else does, knowing that little pieces can add up to big markets if you know how to do it right. 

So, this is your industry on signal - are you ready to start demonstrating at scale?