Billed as the solution to provide smartphones to the other five billion people without a mobile device, Project Ara is Google’s latest attempt to up the ante on the war for mobile dominance. The brainchild of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, Project Ara is a potentially revolutionary idea that will, in theory, allow for the development of inexpensive modular smartphones with parts that can be swapped out as they grow obsolete.
If it takes off, it could eliminate the need for purchasing an entirely new phone every time you want to upgrade to a device with a longer lasting battery, or a better camera, or a faster processor. Instead, consumers can upgrade their devices piece-by-piece, simply swapping out their phone’s modular components. Here’s everything we know (so far) about Project Ara.
To this point, only non-functional prototypes have been developed, but Google’s stated plan is to make the first Ara phone available by January 2015. Demonstrations of pre-production prototypes are scheduled for some time in September of 2014, but there is indication that Google may decide to roll the platform out in developing countries first before making it available to U.S. consumers.
Citing affordability as one of its chief benefits, Google says it will begin marketing the first generation Ara phone at a base price of around $50, but will also roll out a more expensive model for approximately $500.
The premium version will presumably come with a modules with better performance and specs. The basic model will reportedly include an endoskeleton frame, a display screen, unit battery, a main Application Processor module, and a Wi-Fi module. One important note: the suggested $50 to $500 price range reflects only the cost of manufacturing; no exact retail price has yet been announced.
Individual tile-shaped modules will bond magnetically and will be held together by an endoskeleton, appropriately nicknamed “Endo”. 3D printers will be employed by module manufacturers to create tiles to match a user’s specific needs. Since modules will be built according to Google’s recently released open-source MDK — a set of guidelines for the design of hardware compatible with Ara — third party manufacturers will be able to develop tiles that combine any number of conceivable functions. Functionality will be restricted only by the module designer’s own limitations.
Plans are to make the Endo in three sizes: mini, medium and large. Mini versions will be designed to match the approximate size of pocket media players, measuring at 2×5 inches. Medium sized Ara phones will come in a size comparable to current smart phone sizes at 3×6 inches, while the large Ara format will mimic the scale of present-day –and increasingly popular — phablets of 4×7 inches. All design prototypes are 9.7mm thick.
Addressing the issue of smartphone life expectancy is among the key issues addressed by Project Ara. According to Google, Ara phones would last users on average five to six years before outliving their effectiveness. This would effectively triple the longevity of most smartphones on the market, which users tend to upgrade every two years.
Plans are afoot to develop an Android operating system capable of supporting interchangeable modular components. Project Ara heads are projecting the development of this software to coincide with the planned release date of January 2015.
What sets Project Ara apart is its open-source approach to smartphone creation. Instead of purchasing a smartphone from a specific manufacturer, buyers will presumably be able to purchase and snap into place modules developed by third parties. The plan is to make modules available for purchase online through an extension of the Google market. In some cases, this could also lead to the arrival of actual retail stores where buyers would be able to obtain that all-important instant gratification by purchasing pre-built modules or having modules 3D printed to specs while they wait.
Hot Swappable Modules
The Endo’s built-in battery, which will operate separately from the battery actually used to power phone operation, will enable users to hot swap modules. This means that almost all parts will support removal and replacement without the need to turn off or reset the phone — even the main powering battery — which is a move users can’t pull off with any other smartphone in existence.
Predictions of Failure or Success
In an article that appeared in Scientific American titled “The Problem with Lego Phones,” author David Pogue made some astute observations about a concept he believes will never be embraced by the masses, for better or for worse. Citing everything from physics to economics, Pogue writes that the modular approach to mobile devices will result in smart phones that are “big, heavy, slow, hot, fragile and ugly.”
Pogue, writing specifically about the original Phonebloks concept developed by Dave Hakkens (officially now a part of the Project Ara movement), also expressed doubt that cell phone service providers like AT&T and Verizon would form a line to “disrupt their herd of cash cows” by supporting a technology that would render yearly smartphone upgrades obsolete.
Gerry Purdy, Chief Mobile Analyst for Compass Intelligence, calls the concept behind Project Ara an “interesting technology to consider” but points to cost as one of the principal factors that could spell its doom from the get-go.
Although affordability is being touted by Google as one of the project’s principal benefits — especially for those in developing nations who have traditionally been unable to afford expensive smart phones — Purdy stresses that opting for the modular approach could end up costing users more in the long run than purchasing the latest-and-greatest gizmo on the market. His rationale is that mass produced smart phones will invariably prove more affordable than individual components.
“When manufacturers build phones at extremely high volume,” Purdy explains, “that drives cost down. Ultimately, it ends up being a tradeoff between disposability and the potentially higher cost of components.”
Purdy points to the iPhone as an example of how integration often works to provide a smartphone that’s faster, smaller, and has a much longer battery life than could be achieved using modular components. “Because of Apple’s lithium ion manufacturing capability,” Purdy says, “batteries don’t have to be 100 percent square. You can form fit the battery around the electronics inside the casing, taking up any bit of unused space and receiving longer life as a result.”
To this point in the project’s development, there has been little discussed by way of the real-life costs that may be associated with individual Ara phone modules. It remains to be seen if the concept will prove to be a successful money-saving option for consumers, or a potentially costly alternative that could handicap Ara’s ability to take off as a viable product.