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It’s a pattern that will be familiar to all smartphone users. You buy an expensive device and it runs perfectly for eighteen months. Then it gradually starts to get a bit slower, and the storage fills up, and the battery doesn’t last as long. So you buy another expensive device to replace it.

This upgrade cycle — or planned obsolescence Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature] Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature] Every year, exhibitions around the world present new high tech devices; expensive toys that come with many promises. They aim to make our lives easier, more fun, super connected, and of course they are status... Read More as the cynics may prefer to call it — has long been an integral part of the business model for smartphone manufacturers. With Google’s Project Ara, that may be about to change.

Ara is an Android-powered modular smartphone concept that is about to become a reality.

What Is Ara?

ara-spiral-2-with-modules

The device consists of separate modules for each component that makes up a phone — the screen, the battery, the wireless radio, the camera and so on — that each clip onto a base skeleton unit as if they were pieces of LEGO 8 Sites to Rediscover Your Love of Lego & Build up Your Collection 8 Sites to Rediscover Your Love of Lego & Build up Your Collection If that old LEGO box is gathering dust in the attic, it's time to bring it out. The playset is enjoying a resurgence. But eight sites say that it never went away. Read More .

As a result, you can build your own phone to your own custom specification, and upgrade any individual part at any time.

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After years as a mere concept, the modular smartphone is finally coming of age. Hardware specifications and performance are stabilising so that there are fewer benefits to be found in your annual or biannual upgrade. If all you want is a slightly better camera or slightly longer battery life Find Out Which Apps Are Killing Your Android Battery Find Out Which Apps Are Killing Your Android Battery If you're getting poor battery life on your device, you likely have an app abusing your battery in the background. Find out how to identify those apps and solve your battery problems. Read More , is it really still necessary to buy a whole new phone?

This is where Project Ara comes in. But what exactly is it, and when will you be able to get your hands on it to build your very own smartphone?

The History of Project Ara

The idea of a modular phone first moved into the mainstream in 2013 via a startup called Phonebloks.

The Phonebloks concept achieved massive viral success through a launch video that was watched more than a million in its first day, and then through the ‘crowdspeaking’ platform Thunderclap, which saw the company’s message reach over a third of a billion users on social media.

Cool concepts from startups These 10 Startups Are Going to Improve Lives. Here's Why. These 10 Startups Are Going to Improve Lives. Here's Why. If you've not been able to make TechCrunch Disrupt this year, you've missed a lot. Here's 10 of the best apps, startups and products I stumbled across while I was at the conference. Read More are common, though, but turning them into real, shipping products is far harder.

Coincidentally, the Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) at the then Google-owned Motorola had also been working on similar concepts, called Project Ara. The two organisations joined forces and the Ara and Phonebloks projects were effectively merged.

The goal was not to create a single product, owned and controlled by a company, but instead to build a fully open platform that anyone could develop for.

After Motorola was sold to Lenovo in 2014, Google retained the ATAP team and Project Ara, and had it working closely with the Android team. In January 2015, Google finally announced concrete plans for a limited commercial launch of Ara before the end of the year.

How It Works

An Ara device begins with an endoskeleton (which doubles as the motherboard) containing a grid of slots for the modules on the front and rear.

project-ara-grid

The front is effectively a single slot the screen (with 720×1280 pixel resolution in the latest concept, dubbed ‘Spiral 2’); the rear contains a different number of slots depending on the size of the skeleton. The Mini version is the size of an old-school mobile phone and houses a 2×5 grid for modules. The Medium version is the size of a five-inch smartphone and has a 3×6 grid, and the Large version is phablet-sized like an iPhone 6 Plus Should You Buy The Bigger iPhone 6 Plus? Should You Buy The Bigger iPhone 6 Plus? The term "phablet" very much applies to Apple's recently announced iPhone 6 Plus, but there's more to it than just a bigger screen. Read More , and has a 4×7 grid.

The modules are all the same size, and will work on each of the skeleton sizes, but have different ratios so they will fill 1×1, 1×2 or 2×2 slots on the grid. You build your phone by filling the available slots with appropriately sized modules, which you will design using the Project Ara Configurator app to be released nearer to launch day.

Spiral 2 prototype_160

The Modules

For most users, the modules will correspond to the elements you see on the spec sheet for any smartphone. You choose which ones you want, and can emphasise specific features that you need — lots of internal storage, or particularly long battery life, for example. Each module can even house a little battery unit to offset its own power usage.

Best of all, they’re easily upgradable. Your Ara device might support 4G data when you buy it, but you’d be able to instantly swap that out for a 5G module in the future. There are 11 modules at the moment, and Google has said that is aiming to have up to 30 by the end of 2015.

Perhaps most interesting modules are the potential uses away from the mainstream.

At the second Project Ara developer conference in January we got a glimpse of some potential niche modules that really show off the power of Ara.

Idea for potential niche modules include:

  • High-end audio: Sennheiser unveiled a concept for a audio module that is able to capture high-quality audio capture and playback, including support for up to four mic inputs that could make an Ara device a valuable tool for musicians.
  • Instant blood tests: Medical research company Vestigen had concepts for modules that could assist doctors in performing quick blood or saliva tests. A drop of blood goes onto a test strip that is inserted into the module, and the phone’s hardware provides instant analysis.
  • Environmental measurement: Sensor research company Lapka has showed off concepts for a host of modules containing sensors that can record monitor a wide range of environmental factors, from light to air quality 6 Smart Interior Air Quality Monitors You Should Buy For Your Home 6 Smart Interior Air Quality Monitors You Should Buy For Your Home Read More , and even a breathalyser.

These ideas show that even if Project Ara fails to gain traction as a mainstream proposition, it promises very many tangible benefits to a whole host of industries, enabling them to replace expensive proprietary hardware with cheaper and more portable alternatives.

When Can You Get It?

Project Ara will get an initial consumer test launch in the US territory of Puerto Rico later in 2015.

The unusual location was chosen due to the diversity of market, with entry-level and high-end smartphones Building the Perfect Smartphone Building the Perfect Smartphone Smartphones are improving all the time. However, the perfect smartphone doesn't yet exist. Which is a problem we're seeking to remedy. Read More selling in equal numbers, along with the fact that it’s an area where the mobile internet dominates. As much as 75 percent of Internet usage is on mobile devices.

Puerto Rico is also within the jurisdiction of the FCC, the US regulatory body, which means that Google will be able to work to ensure that the still experimental product conforms to all necessary regulations.

Google has said that the ‘bill of materials’ cost (i.e. how much it costs to make) of an entry level Ara device would be in the range of $50-$100. It’s likely that the devices would be sold in the same way normal smartphones are, via a carrier and with a contract. There’s no word yet on the pricing of some of the more innovative modules.

There are more questions still to be answered about Project Ara, and much more development work to be done, even before it begins its initial trial launch phase, let alone becomes something that’s available on high streets around the world.

But no matter how it turns out, there’s little doubt that Project Ara is one of the most intriguing and innovative concepts we’ve seen in the mobile space, and is something we cannot wait to get our hands on.

How would you build your Ara smartphone? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Steffen Büßelmann
    May 29, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Its excatly the advantage of PCs: Modularity. Need faster rendering? Switch out the CPU! Want play more recent games? Switch the graphics card! Your system is swapping constantly? Add more RAM! Your disks are full? Get a bigger Hard Drive! And for smartphones this would be a real life benefit. Most people may not change anythign at all. perhaps more storage space after soem time. And developers wouldnt make entire phones but instead specialize and focuse on the individual parts lite it's standard in the PC market for decades. (And than there are some who claim "PC is dead" It's more a fusion of systems.)

  2. James
    February 24, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Make sure none of the parts are made in China and i will buy one tomorrow.

  3. Paal Joachim
    February 24, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    This is so great! Modularity is the future for devices around us. The cell phone, laptop, and likely other devices as well. Awesome and so very natural to have a devices built up by removable modules!

  4. Ed
    February 24, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    This is an idea whose time has come. Its like the original Dell computer model but for Smartphones. This is brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  5. brian hutt hogg
    February 24, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    i had this idea 3 years ago

    • John Deebank.
      February 25, 2015 at 1:11 am

      My theory is that any idea you think of is stolen from you while you sleep. I have had many ideas over the years only to see they get marketed down the road. I have no other explanation than this one.

    • John Deebank.
      February 25, 2015 at 1:14 am

      Type my response to what?

  6. Tomiwa
    February 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    This is the dopest piece of technology ever! Why anyone wouldn't want this, I can't fathom.

  7. J.L. GATEWOOD
    February 24, 2015 at 3:27 am

    I want them to also think about different OSs as well... Win10 phone, Ubuntu Mobile, Etc.

    Also not just phones... Wearable and tablet endoskeketons as well...

    • N.J. GATEWOOD
      February 27, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      Dude, I have the last name Gatewood as well! I thought my family was, like, the only one that actually uses the internet. *Knucklebump*

      But yeah, I agree - hopefully modular devices take off across all mobile operating systems. This should be the future of mobile computing, I've been waiting forever for it. I mean, I build my computers, why can't I build my phone? I'm glad this is finally happening.

  8. The Gap
    February 24, 2015 at 3:00 am

    Hey folks if you don't have a life without your super dooper up to the second super smart phone and have money to throw away every 12 months or so to be a part of the IN crowd, then this great new idea is probably not for you.
    But for others like me who have PC's, tablets, cameras, TV's etc and just want a phone that we can MAINTAIN, that has a few extras and will not have to dump every few years, this is a great idea.

  9. John Williams
    February 24, 2015 at 1:20 am

    I hope there is a way to add an extra exoskeleton - some would happily live with a thicker phone if it did a specialist job. Also the facility to join 2 or 3 skeletons side by side with two screens.
    Road warriors could ditch the WiFi module and have a beefier 4G
    part with better aerials. Maybe a "green tooth" radio part to communicate with the internet of things in your house or car.
    I also hope there is scope for a Raspberry Pi interface and an Arduino sheild.
    But most of all I hope the fashionistas don't ruin it by making it blingy pretty at the expense of it's functionality.

  10. Sean
    February 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    It can turn into a logistical nightmare to run so many SKUs across the supply chain and making it available for customers.

  11. vaibhav
    February 23, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Well with modules and all, will it be slim? What if it dosent look good.

    • Nickle
      March 14, 2015 at 7:14 am

      Look good? Are you an apple user? I have yet to hear the words "functionality" and "Good looks" in the same sentence

  12. eric foster
    February 21, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    I want thus phone so bad I would make it with a good camera a large battery a big speeker and I would change it around every now and then

  13. Doc
    February 21, 2015 at 2:42 am

    720x1280? Only 720p? Not interested. With newer phones sporting 1440x2560 screens, who would be? (I'm currently stuck with a 480x800, 3.5" phone, and it's horrible).
    Not to mention its being a short-run "experiment," which would make the modules expensive.
    I also don't see any battery specifications, whether or not the battery will be replaceable, or whether or not an SD card slot is included. Hint: Google has refused to put an SD slot in any Nexus device, stating that the SD cards' FAT32 filesystem - standard on SD cards - is "unstable" and "prone to corruption," despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of digital cameras, Nintendo DS and Wii systems, camcorders, other brands of phones and tablets (except Apple), and even Sony PSPs have been using SD cards with few complaints since 1999! Seriously, there's no reason not to have an SD slot on an Android device; if you don't trust the card, don't use it! - but at least give us a choice!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secure_Digital#History

    • Positive
      February 22, 2015 at 1:06 am

      You can upgrade the screen

      There is an MDK released by Project Ara where it states that the battery is a module so yeah it is upgradable

      Make a module that supports SD card and you are done, if you cant manufacture it someone will do it

    • Frances
      February 22, 2015 at 4:55 pm

      I don't think you understand the point of a modular device. All of your concerns can be answered with different developer modules that you choose when purchasing a phone. The 720p screen is what's currently in the prototype but not everyone needs/wants a higher resolution screen, if you want one you can pay a little more and get one for your device. The battery is it's own module so you can have more than one, or carry an extra one with you if you're concerned about battery life. The SD card slot is also a module, if it's that important to you be sure to include one on your device. This is the beauty of molecularity!

  14. Christopher
    February 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    I wonder if this one will include what users have been screaming for for years: root without jumping through a hundred hoops.

    • Elizabeth
      February 21, 2015 at 3:41 am

      I can't image there being a way to begin to lock this phone except through maybe a carrier lock? I'm not very good at understanding all the angles on these types of things though so I may be wrong...

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