Project Ara's death is bad news for the weird side of Google

Lots of the stranger Alphabet initiatives are struggling to make headway.

Last week, Google announced that it was killing Project Ara, the company's modular smartphone initiative. Ara was easily one of the coolest and strangest things Google was working on, but the project always felt like a bit of a longshot. In this world of carefully-built, sealed-up iPhones and Galaxy devices, it didn't feel like there was much room for Ara's intriguing but bizarre swappable hardware modules. But Ara was one of the best examples out there of "Weird Google," and Ara's death is the latest clue that the experimental side of the company might be in trouble.

To fully understand this weird side of the company, let's step back to Google I/O 2013. Larry Page made one of the more bizarre speeches you might hear from a CEO of one of the world's biggest organizations. Page (now CEO of Google parent company Alphabet) advocated setting aside part of the world for unregulated experimentation. "There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation," Page said. "And that's good, we don't want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world." That pretty much sums up what I think of when I talk about what makes Google (pleasantly) weird.

Or I should say weird Alphabet. Most of the company's more radical initiatives are now technically under the parent company rather than Google itself. But, just about all of the curious things came out when it was all known as Google. Sure, the company's traditional products -- Search, Android, Maps, Gmail and the massive ad business that pays for everything -- are both extremely successful and exciting to see develop. But it was always the offbeat side of the company where a lot of fascinating projects were born -- and it feels like that part of Alphabet and Google is going away.

Project Ara's shutdown came after a year of back-and-forth about the initiative's future. Last year's pilot launch in Puerto Rico was cancelled, and rumors swirled about the project's future for a while after that. Despite that, just three months later, Ara made a surprise appearance ago at Google I/O. Staff showed off working phones and said that a developer model would be ready by the end of 2016. They even said a consumer-ready product would be on sale in 2017.

But eventually Google switched course, and there's a lot to read into about Ara's demise. The reason that this particular death is so significant to the Weird Google trend is what it says about the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group where Ara was born. The modular phone initiative was its most visible and potentially useful concept project. Especially now that the augmented reality Project Tango is in products shipping to consumers soon. Without Ara, it's easy to feel like ATAP is a bit adrift. Sure, that Project Jacquard Levi's jacket with sensor fabric is cool, but it's not exactly a mainstream product just yet.

Further reinforcing the issue is the loss of ATAP head Regina Dugan, who recently left the group for the relatively safe and stable confines of Facebook. Dugan came to Google from DARPA, a secretive research department in the Pentagon, and quickly became a huge advocate for the ATAP group -- under her direction, the group publicly proclaimed they were a "band of pirates trying to do epic shit," and they lived up to that promise with ideas like Ara and Tango.

But now Dugan's gone, Ara is dead, and a number of Google's more experimental high-profile projects are struggling. Recode reported a few weeks ago that Alphabet's secretive "moonshot" X lab was struggling to get products out of the experimental phase and out the door, with the Google / Alphabet reorganization imposing more red tape and difficulties on the team.

Google Fiber, the company's superfast home internet initiative, is having trouble launching in cities where it has promised to deliver -- and Page reportedly wants to cut the size of the team in half. Page and fellow Google co-founder Sergey Brin are both said to be concerned about the costs associated with deploying the fiber-optic internet networks, and another report claims the company is forgoing fiber and using wireless to deliver internet when it launches in Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.


Image credit: Reuters/George Frey

There's also Nest CEO Tony Fadell's departure, which came after reports of infighting between Fadell and Dropcam CEO Greg Duffy -- who came on board when Google bought the security camera company. Fadell claimed some members of the Dropcam team were "not as good as we'd hoped" in an interview with The Information; Duffy then publicly challenged Fadell to release Nest's financials and show just how the division was doing. Oh, and this all happened before Fadell even left Nest.

Speaking of Nest, Google Glass ended up part of the same division after the original pilot program unceremoniously shut down in January of 2015. We've heard basically nothing substantive about the project since. And Google also sold off Niantic, the company first responsible for the augmented reality game Ingress that has now built a little title you may have heard of: Pokémon Go.


Image credit: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters

Of course, turmoil and difficulty is to be expected when you're working on wild projects, many of them right out in the public eye. Companies like Apple would never put something like Ara or Glass through what amounts to very pubic alpha and beta test programs, so it's not surprising that things need to be rethought or shuttered entirely. There's still Alphabet's fascinating self-driving cars, Project Loon's internet-via-balloon program and the super-cheap Project Fi cellphone service to be excited about, to name just a few of Alphabet's more disruptive plans. And the company's huge ad business still pays for nearly everything happening at Alphabet, allowing for this sort of experimentation.

But from a business perspective, the Google division continues to earn money hand over fist while Alphabet hasn't found any other area that can reliably make a profit yet. Perhaps the turmoil of the last year or so has been to refocus on the experimental bets that are most likely to pay off in the long run. The strategy could end up proving itself to be a smart one -- but that doesn't mean we won't miss Project Ara and the other initiatives that used to be the hallmark of Weird Google.