Thinking ahead: distinctive experience vs. flexible product
I'm using the One M8 and Project Ara as examples here. Forgive me if you don't agree with my interpretation or summary of the two, but the topic is still intriguing. If you just want the bottom line, feel free to skip to the end.
The One M8.
From the unique stereo speakers design that debuted with the M7 to the Dot View Case of the M8, it's certainly a unique device with a unique design. From the AC review:
I agree. The evolution of the M7's hardware and physical design is excellent, and they've matched it with their best software to date. Of course, you may not personally find Sense as appealing as some — but the fact remains that HTC has customized a very large portion of Android in order to create the experience they envisioned. Keep in mind they've done this at a time when stock Android on non-Nexus devices is on the rise (see Motorola's choices over the past few years, even before the Google ownership, and the increasing GPe devices), or are trying to improve their existing offerings (see Samsung's attempts at adding cohesion and modern touches to TouchWiz, and LG's software improvements with the G Flex). The battle for the "best experience" is very evident when you compare the M8 to the S5.
The original HTC One was the company’s first major push into an all- (OK, mostly) metal construction, milling out a single block of aluminum for what was a pretty striking phone. But the new HTC One? Downright futuristic. More metal. A more impressive design. A bigger display. And the best software HTC’s ever put together, with HTC Sense 6 and its wealth of features running atop Android 4.4.2 KitKat. The new HTC One is, quite simply, the best smartphone HTC has ever made.
A lot of the improved look and feel comes down to one thing — the way the back of the phone curves up and over and into the side. Gone is the beveled edge that, while stylish, very much broke up the line of the phone. Now it’s just a gentle curve that rolls over onto the back. It’s still a pretty sharp angle to the vertical, but the transition in no way feels like a sharp edge.
HTC’s attention to detail is very much still in effect, though, from the beveled front edge as it meets the display to the top edge, which houses the power button and IR port and any other magical device. The brushed finish on the gunmetal gray — easily our favorite of the three — is a wonderful touch.
So Google ATAP is moving forward with Project Ara, which is awesome. They're looking at a $50 entry point for the modular hardware platform, which will likely materialize next year. There's no understating the importance of introducing modular hardware like this to the smart-device industry. Longer-lasting hardware, easily replaceable hardware, easily upgradeable hardware, etc. However, the fact remains that this product is restricted in two ways: the base platform will be the same (aside from three sizes), and the individual component modules will also be restricted in form.
What does that mean? Well... it isn't entirely clear. We don't know much about how the project will take shape, or how it will evolve after launch. However, at least in the beginning, I'd say it's unlikely that we'll see modular smartphones with the same level of attention to detail and control over design that we see with "all-in-one" devices like the M8, or any other current flagship. For example, I certainly don't see Apple moving to a modular platform like this any time soon. Their vertical integration and complete hardware and software control is what gives them the ability to create a very cohesive hardware and software experience, which on the Android side of things is an aspect Google has been working to enable and improve.
What's the bottom line?
The promise of a modular hardware platform shares some of the same benefits as open-source software. It's a base platform that can be used, improved (through increasingly advanced and feature-rich modules), and influenced by consumers and manufacturers alike. Many of the restrictions and pitfalls of the current smartphone experience may be improved or bypassed entirely. You'll be given the option to build your own hardware experience, but only time will tell to what extent.
So what interests you more? The flexibility and control of a modular platform, or the "complete" experience of a product designed from the bottom up with a specific vision in mind?