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With Android, Google managed to build an open standard for mobile operating systems, daring anyone and everyone to build upon and adapt it. Now, with an ambitious project dubbed “Project Ara,” it hopes to do the same for mobile hardware.

Specifically, Google wants to create the world’s first completely customizable smartphone. You’ll be able to choose what ‘modules’ are most important to you, and — if necessary — pop them out and replace them.

If having a high-end smartphone camera 10 Ways Your Smartphone Camera Can Make Life Easier 10 Ways Your Smartphone Camera Can Make Life Easier "Does your phone have a camera on it?" said no one since 2005. Nobody even asks how many megapixels your phone's camera has anymore. With the ubiquity of smartphones today, and the resolution of the... Read More is important to you, you’ll probably want to have a nice camera module. But let’s say you’re running low on battery life and need to make sure your phone lasts the rest of the night. If you don’t plan on taking any more photos, you can swap your camera module out for a larger battery. I’d hate to compare it to LEGO, but I wouldn’t be the first.

With Project Ara, you’ll be able to truly make your device your own and customize it to meet your needs on the fly.

Why Modular?

Smartphones

If you buy a smartphone today, chances are you’ll get something that was designed for mass market appeal. The iPhone and most Android phones, while extremely capable, are not tailored specifically to you. That’s okay in many respects, but certain features may be an awkward fit for your personal lifestyle. Personally, I wonder why the hell the iPhone keeps getting thinner with only marginal battery life improvements 7 Ways To Boost Your Cell Phone Battery Life [iPhone, Android & Other Smartphones] 7 Ways To Boost Your Cell Phone Battery Life [iPhone, Android & Other Smartphones] By far one of the most disappointing features in just about every smartphone these days is the battery life, which for most of us requires at least one charge per 24-hour period. Are you a... Read More — I don’t mind carrying a slightly thicker phone if the battery lasts me all day.

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Battery life is important to me. For you, maybe it’s something else. Whatever matters to you, you can have it with a modular smartphone.

It makes sense from an economic standpoint as well: splurge on what’s important to you; forget about what isn’t. Don’t buy a new phone every year; just upgrade the components of your existing phone as needed. A basic version of the Project Ara phone — targeting folks in developing nations with very tight budgets — has a target price of $50 and will only come with WiFi, not a cellular connection. Then, as its owner’s needs and budget evolve, it could be upgraded with additional modules.

How It Works

Ara smartphones will consist of various modules held together by metal endoskeletal frames called “endos.” The frame links all of the modules together, with a slot for the display on the front and slots for other modules on the front and back. The endos themselves will only cost about $15.

The frames will be available in three sizes: “mini,” about the size of a Nokia 3310; “medium,” about the size of a Nexus 5 Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Approximately a year after Google released the Nexus 4, the company behind Android has come out with its successor -- the Nexus 5. Read More ; and “large,” about the size of a Galaxy Note 3 Samsung Galaxy Note 3 N9000 Review and Giveaway Samsung Galaxy Note 3 N9000 Review and Giveaway Samsung released the third generation of the Galaxy Note in October, updating the phablet with a larger screen and improved hardware. Read More . Modules will be interchangeable with all three sizes.

Speaking of modules, what will they do exactly? Well, just about everything. They can provide common smartphone features like cameras and speakers, but other modules will offer more specialized functions, including medical devices, receipt printers, laser pointers, projectors How I Built A Projector For My Phone How I Built A Projector For My Phone When I first saw Photojojo's DIY iPhone projector I was intrigued. The science behind it was sound in my mind, but I wondered how usable it really was. The only way to find out was... Read More , game controller buttons, and more.

Modules will be secured to the frame with electropermanent magnets. Each slot on the frame will be compatible with any module of the same size — so the example I mentioned earlier of swapping your camera out for a battery is actually feasible, so long as the two modules are the same size. Modules can be hot-swapped without turning the phone off. This includes the main battery, thanks to a small backup battery included in the frame.

Modules will be sold both at an official Google store and at third-party stores. By default, Ara smartphones will only accept official smartphones, but — much like installing an unofficial app on Android — you can change a software setting to enable unofficial modules.

History of Ara

In August 2011, Google announced that it had acquired Motorola. Less than three years later, in January 2014, the company announced that it had agreed to sell Motorola to Lenovo. However, Google decided to hold onto a single choice piece of Motorola: the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group.

Led by Regina Dugan, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ATAP worked on “moonshots” similar to those found at Google X.

One such project is Project Ara.

“The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?” said Paul Eremenko, DARPA alumnus and leader of Project Ara. “Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space.”

Project Ara officially began on April 1, 2013, with ideas and discussions dating back to the fall of 2012. It all came together quickly, owing its success thus far to Dugan, Eremenko, and other former DARPA workers, as well as its self-imposed time constraints. “Generally, time is not your friend,” said Eremenko. “Innovation under time pressure is generally higher-quality innovation.”

The Ara team currently works in a tiny office seven miles from Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

Launching in Puerto Rico

At a Project Ara Developer Conference on Google’s campus last month, Eremenko discussed Google’s plans for bringing Ara devices to market. Instead of going all-in and making the device available to everyone right away, the company plans to run a pilot in Puerto Rico. Google says it chose Puerto Rico for its strong mobile penetration — 75 percent of the population’s Internet access is through phones.

Google is currently working with two carriers: Open Mobile and Claro, which is a subsidiary of América Móvil, the largest mobile carrier in Latin America.

The company plans to sell the smartphone modules in Puerto Rico via a roving van. “We want to create a flexible retail experience,” said Eremenko. “We’re designing a food truck as a retail vehicle for the market pilot.”

Project Ara has amassed 50 module developers to date, including chipmakers Marvell, Nvidia, and Rockchip.

Conclusion

Project Ara is an exciting and potentially revolutionary move in the smartphone space. The ability to customize every aspect of what your device is capable of, while it may feel foreign at first, could change the way we think about mobile computing.

I can’t say whether modular smartphones are the future, but what I can say is that Project Ara is something to keep your eye on over the next year or so.

What do you think? Would you buy a modular smartphone? What kinds of modules would you want to see?

Image Credit: Google

  1. Pj arambam
    October 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    I hope the modular phone come with a high processor and good amount of ram as the cpu and the rams are not in modules that can't be changed. As customers now a days generally have the ideas of good processor and good amount of ram can change the tide in multitasking and gaming. As for the cameras and video module are for those who are good in Photoshop and video editing and generally customer are satisfied with the default cameras and its features as the images processing is advance and even a small megapixels camera can capture a superb quality pictures and companies now a days provide good amount of megapixels in their cameras. So the main emphasis must be given upon the unchangeable hardware parts to be high end so that it can battle though many years and the make sure that Custumers are to be focus on the modules not in the hardware of the frame.

    In short, i wish the frame comes with a good processor and ram. Thank you.

  2. Sonylisation
    March 13, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Too bad you cant give a +1 or a like to some comments here! Mma173 hits it spot on!
    Althou it wouldnt be possible to customise a phone due to the small size of the parts and the very limited battery you have to play with, the parts of the ARA project will most likely be outdated before you can gain any real market for some of them.

    That said, im quite interested in the idea of having an api made for easy acsess to the phones OS to let it recognize things like a Microcontroller dev board interface (programming and testing using the phones cpu power), smart remotes, screen extenders for laptops or even as login screens for your pc's.

    From a technical standpoint its very very interesting and really tickles my ... fancy... BUT from a practical standpoint, as long as the parts wont cost too much, have high quality and the market really kicks of it might be a very expensive project!

    • Brad Merrill
      March 18, 2015 at 8:53 pm

      Interesting points - thanks for the comment!

  3. Chinmay S
    March 13, 2015 at 11:58 am

    I won't buy any modular smartphone because of its awful design. After you have appended all the parts, the phone won't look like a phone. See the design of iPhone 6, it look amazing.

    Regarding the upgrading module, it isn't that easy. For example, if your screen is 720p and you upgrade the camera to take 4k shots, in that case, you'll also have to upgrade the screen. After having 4k screen you'll have to upgrade battery. In smartphones, every part is connected to other.

    So if you upgrade 1 part, you'll have to upgrade the whole phone.

    Conclusion: Modular Smartphones Will NOT Change Mobile Computing.

    • Brad Merrill
      March 18, 2015 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment! Valid points, for sure. It will be interesting to see how Google addresses those concerns.

  4. mma173
    March 13, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Having the ability to customize the phone upfront before buying would be enough IMHO. Technology is advancing so quick that in two years, the whole thing will be outdated and due for replacement.

    • Brad Merrill
      March 18, 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Good point - that would be enough for me too, truthfully.

  5. David
    March 13, 2015 at 3:46 am

    "By default, Ara smartphones will only accept official smartphones,"
    I'm guessing that second "smartphones" was supposed to be "modules".

  6. Ethan
    March 12, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Yes I think I would get one as an IT pro I think its a very cool idea what will be interesting is if they will be able to get other people not just IT pro and phone geeks to buy in to the idea of designing your own phone..

    • Brad Merrill
      March 12, 2015 at 11:59 pm

      It will definitely be interesting to see whether everyday consumers buy into it, for sure.

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