"Lego" Ara Phone: The Future for Enterprise Mobility?
Google’s modular smartphone, Project Ara, looks to be a reality and may be on sale early next year. This opens up the possibility of phone hardware becoming like Lego, where you can simply switch phone configurations quickly and easily to suit your current requirements. While this clearly offers the customization and personalization craved by many consumer users, I believe that this flexibility could make the Ara very popular with business users too.
What is Ara?
Project Ara is a concept whereby a smartphone is broken down into its components, which are then modularised and can be easily switched in and out. This means that you have phone skeletons (a screen with three sizes expected) which have a rail on the back to plug the modules into, then separate modules for the CPU, camera, antennae, batteries and so on allowing you to customise your phone depending on what you need. It’s the evolution of Dave Hakkens’ Phonebloks concept from September 2013, which you can see here:
It’s a concept of the phone as a single companion device that does just about everything you need, whatever that may be at the time. If you want to work on a long flight, you might want to install a larger screen, a second battery (and maybe pack a couple of spare batteries just in case) and information suggests that even physical keyboards could be attached. Meanwhile, if you have some free time on your business trip, you could plug in a powerful camera and larger memory.
For now, it appears that Google will be keeping control of building the Ara’s skeletons, but third party modules will be available. Given that the skeleton is the screen with a data transfer frame (with a very fast speed of up to 10 Gb/s) it’s much like a miniature version of the desktop PC, which could well make specialist companies manufacturing niche high-end modules economically viable, whether this is 40+ megapixel cameras or high performance graphics.
The Ara and BYOD
What the Ara offers is the potential for the enterprise to be able to provide smartphones that can be personalised and customised to the needs of each user, easily upgraded while also minimising unproductive time if the event of anything going wrong. If your users have iPhones, for example, replacing a broken screen can take up to two weeks, whereas with Ara all IT would have to do is plug their modules into a new skeleton and they can continue working while the original screen is repaired.
Today, providing users with the high-end smartphones or tablets they need to be productive on the go costs more than their enterprise laptops, which they still need because many workplace tasks are not yet integrated and optimised for mobile. Supporting your wide range of user needs with different sized devices, such as ones with big screens for salespeople or larger batteries for field service staff becomes very expensive. Smartphones today are still consumer devices that are being re-purposed for work and while the costs may be acceptable for a consumer they are an issue for corporate IT.
With the Ara, IT departments would be able to save on procurement and support as certain modules could be standard and changing the functionality of a device would carry a proportionally lower cost. It’s also worth remembering that although the Ara today looks bulky and clumsy as opposed to the increasingly sleek high end phones that users are demanding, this is still a prototype device and it will become more attractive with each new iteration.
Ever since iPhones and iPads caused senior managers to walk into the office proudly holding their new toy and demanding to access corporate data on it, BYOD has caused enterprises to rethink how they manage information security and access to corporate applications and data. Naturally, approaches have ranged from “absolutely forbidden” to “you must bring your own device” and every imaginable approach in between, and in many cases restrictions are caused by the business’s own regulatory environment so one approach will never work for everyone.
One of the enterprise’s biggest concerns around mobile and especially BYOD is data security. From an IT security perspective, the pre-mobility world allowed devices to be kept securely behind the corporate firewall, running standard images and completely locked down.
In terms of enterprise mobility, that means no apps, no email, no access to important systems like ERP and CRM, and everything must be secured with passwords that are both hard to remember and difficult to enter on a touchscreen.
Fortunately, the demand for BYOD means that we now have mobile security solutions like Soti and Letmobile which secure access to enterprise data without affecting the user experience of the phone as a whole. Enterprise mobility and adoption of cloud services have gone hand-in-hand, as the ability to access corporate systems via a simple login has allowed users to avoid being tied to a single corporate device. However, all of these clever systems only mitigate the security challenges.
Enterprise data has to be secured across several layers: the device, the application, and the user. Users are verified through authentication, using passwords and increasingly biometrics; applications can be approved by the enterprise following security vetting to ensure it does what it says; and devices can be encrypted. With Ara, some of the challenges of securing access to corporate applications can be controlled by allowing users to physically remove sensitive corporate data or applications from their device when needed, such as when travelling to other countries.
It’s still early days for Ara, but it looks like this new concept of phone could become very popular both with consumers and enterprises as a solution to BYOD concerns.
David Akka is Managing Director at Magic Software Enterprises UK. David is a successful executive manager with a proven track record as a general manager with a strong background in sales, marketing, business development and operations. Past experience in technology and service delivery include both UK and European responsibilities.