We've been keeping an eye on the progress of Google's Project Ara for a while now, and the radio silence had us a little worried. The idea for a modular smartphone, where individual hardware components like cameras, speakers and battery packs can be easily swapped out to customize your device, was too intriguing to languish in limbo. But Ara will languish no more, as the tech giant gave the project some much needed attention at its I/O conference last week. We now know a lot more about how the system works, how it fits into the current landscape of modular phones and why we should be (at least cautiously) excited about it.
As consumers, we're already used to customizing our phones, whether it's downloading apps according to our lifestyle, or picking out cases based on our sense of style (or tendency to drop the phone). The concept of modular smartphones takes that several steps further, allowing us to essentially build our own phone, picking and choosing the hardware pieces we want. Are you constantly snapping and Instagramming photos? Slide in a higher resolution camera. Go camping a lot and can't charge your phone for a few days? Take an extended battery pack with you. As new hardware is released or if something breaks, upgrading individual pieces is cheaper, easier and less wasteful than just binning the whole phone and starting over.
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Phone modularity is an ambitious idea, and it's one that could completely change the industry and the direction of technology for years to come – or it could just peter out into nothing. Google is obviously banking on the former, devoting ten minutes of an I/O talk last week to reassuring us that Project Ara is still coming, and revealing some features for consumers and technical details for developers.
If you'd asked us a week ago how much confidence we had in Project Ara being revolutionary, we probably would've grimaced and pointed to the grave of Google Glass. But with this new batch of info, we want to believe this is the next generation of smartphones. We don't yet, but we want to.
Rafa Camargo, the Technical and Engineering Lead at Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, explained the specifics. The Ara frame contains the hardware essentials – CPU, GPU, antennas, sensors, battery and screen – so module makers don't need to worry about the basics. "Developers can focus on their technology, while users will be guaranteed a consistent user experience when using Ara modules," Camargo says.
There are six slots for these modules, and Camargo was quick to assure us that all slots are generic and will support any functionality, so pieces can be put anywhere in the frame. Greybus, the Ara software stack, enables runtime detection of modules, so it's plug-and-play with no need to reboot the device or hunt down drivers.
Future-proofing is a key concern as well. "Current modules will work with future frames, future modules will work with current frames, protecting the investment of both users and developers," says Camargo. These future frames could be larger or smaller, or cryptically, "something completely different than a smartphone." Color us intrigued.
"Completely different" seems like a running theme with Project Ara. Several times during the presentation, the speakers mentioned Ara bringing in technology that we've never seen in a smartphone, and it seems plausible: some features might be too niche and expensive to bother building into a phone, but make it an optional module and it suddenly becomes a whole lot more viable. A phone with a built-in 3D camera might struggle to earn its keep, but there's probably a market for a 3D camera Ara module. And that's just an easy example: developers could come up with far more inventive things for our phones to do.
Along with the expected modules like better speakers, cameras, or expandable storage, ATAP's Head of Creative, Blaise Bertrand, discussed the example of a glucometer, the device people with diabetes use to check their blood sugar levels. Incorporating that into a module would allow people to perform their readings from their phone, without having to carry around an extra device. Those readings can be given context from data on your phone, like whether you were exercising or sitting beforehand, and show how that affects the measurement. Again, not everyone will need a glucometer, but for the approximately 6 million diabetic Americans who use one several times a day, the module could prove handy.
Ideas like this will sell people on the device, but a few other factors we haven't heard about yet could swing people either way. Module pricing is a potential stumbling block, considering consumers will need to fork out for multiple pieces of their phone, but with the starting price of only US$50 for the frame, that still leaves a lot of room in someone's new-phone budget for some splurging. Not to mention that the sometimes-daunting task of shopping around for a new phone is all but removed completely: it's an attractive prospect to know you can change your mind later, and won't be locked into a phone full of features you don't use.
It's important to note the arena that Project Ara is entering, too. Modular smartphones aren't entirely new (LG already has one on the market ... sort of), but Google looks to be in a good position now – largely because the company has snapped up the rights to previous attempts at the technology. Believe it or not, we've had modular smartphone concepts almost as long as we've had the smartphone itself.
The first modular mobiles came out way back in 2008. Called Modu, from the Israeli company of the same name, the device utilized different "jackets", or cases, that added functions like MP3 playback, keyboards and hands-free calling capabilities – all things we expect on even the most basic phones now.
Modu never really took off, and the company went under in January 2011. A few months later, who else but Google snapped up the rights to several of Modu's patents. After spending US$4.9 million, we're inclined to think that at least the shadow of the tech is at work in Project Ara.
In 2013, the concept resurfaced as PhoneBloks, spearheaded by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. His primary goal was to reduce the amount of e-waste we, as a "throwaway" society, produce. Declaring it "a phone worth keeping", Hakkens wanted people to switch out broken or unwanted pieces, rather than ditching a whole phone when something stops working or we just feel like an upgrade.
Hakkens launched a social media campaign aimed at enticing developers and companies to jump on board, and Motorola Mobility, under the extensive Google umbrella, revealed it had been working on a similar concept (thanks to Modu?) for the past year. The two joined forces, with Motorola developing the hardware and Phonebloks essentially maintaining the project's social media voice and presence.
Today, a couple of similar products exist, but none that really pose a threat to Project Ara. Released in September 2015, the FairPhone 2 was the first commercially available modular phone, but it has very different goals. Its modularity isn't so much for customization as it is to allow the user to repair components themselves, but even that takes a backseat to the company's primary goal, which is right there in the name: ensuring fair trade practices, that all of its components are responsibly sourced, and its factory workers worldwide enjoy better conditions and pay. These are all things to admire, of course, and it doesn't look like Google is too concerned with these issues, considering the PhoneBloks mission to reduce e-waste hasn't really come up since they joined forces.
Closer to Project Ara's turf is Nexpaq, a modular case for existing phones. It seems solid enough, but we can't help but feel like it isn't a long-term solution, considering how smartphone sizes change with almost every iteration. On top of that, Google will no doubt have a much easier time seducing third party module developers to work with it.
Neither of these look like true competitors, leaving Project Ara looking like the horse to bet on in the modular smartphone race. "Ara is our vision for the future of phones," says Dan Kaufman, the Deputy Director of ATAP. "And even more so, our vision for an entirely new hardware ecosystem."
Project Ara will live or die on how well that ecosystem thrives. Already, Google has partnered with companies like Samsung, E-ink, Micron, Sony Pictures, and Harman to produce modules, and a lineup that strong is encouraging. We don't have too long to wait to see how it plays out, with the Developer Edition shipping out towards the end of 2016, and the consumer model to follow early next year.
You can watch the full I/O talk below, with the Project Ara details beginning at the 34-minute mark.
Project page: ATAP Google