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