Mobile Technology

Project Ara: Will Google's modular smartphone slot into our future?

Project Ara is Google's modular smartphone, meaning hardware components like cameras, speakers and batteries can be swapped out and upgraded
Project Ara is Google's modular smartphone, meaning hardware components like cameras, speakers and batteries can be swapped out and upgraded
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Rafa Camargo, ATAP's Technical and Engineering Lead, shows off the Developer's Edition of Project Ara at the I/O conference
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Rafa Camargo, ATAP's Technical and Engineering Lead, shows off the Developer's Edition of Project Ara at the I/O conference
The Ara frame contains the necessary hardware components like the battery, antennas and CPU, and features six slots for modules
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The Ara frame contains the necessary hardware components like the battery, antennas and CPU, and features six slots for modules
Some basic modules include higher resolution cameras, better speakers and displays for information like the weather
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Some basic modules include higher resolution cameras, better speakers and displays for information like the weather
Customizable style is key to Ara, according to Google, so modules of different colors and materials will be available
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Customizable style is key to Ara, according to Google, so modules of different colors and materials will be available
A more unique module is the glucometer, allowing diabetic users to test their blood sugar levels without needing to carry a separate device
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A more unique module is the glucometer, allowing diabetic users to test their blood sugar levels without needing to carry a separate device
Google is partnering with many different companies to create modules, as it aims to create a rich "hardware ecosystem"
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Google is partnering with many different companies to create modules, as it aims to create a rich "hardware ecosystem"
ATAP's Head of Creative, Blaise Bertrand, reveals the shipping window for Developer Editions of Project Ara
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ATAP's Head of Creative, Blaise Bertrand, reveals the shipping window for Developer Editions of Project Ara
Project Ara is Google's modular smartphone, meaning hardware components like cameras, speakers and batteries can be swapped out and upgraded
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Project Ara is Google's modular smartphone, meaning hardware components like cameras, speakers and batteries can be swapped out and upgraded

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.

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.

Rafa Camargo, ATAP's Technical and Engineering Lead, shows off the Developer's Edition of Project Ara at the I/O conference
Rafa Camargo, ATAP's Technical and Engineering Lead, shows off the Developer's Edition of Project Ara at the I/O conference

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.

Ara: What’s next

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

Bridging the physical and digital. Imagine the possibilities. ATAP. - Google I/O 2016

6 comments
LukeKennethCassonLeighton
Google has a huge amount of money available to solve specific problems, and to achieve specific things by overcoming barriers that would otherwise be impossible to overcome, creating and priming markets and absorbing costs until the entire eco-system is up and running. As such, there is an expectation in Google that they will be joined by third party companies to create compatible modules and even to create compatible back-bone phones on which interoperable modules will fit. This may not make sense (why would you try to compete with google to create a replacement backbone?) until you remember that Fairphones specifically creates phones with conflict-free minerals. It also does not make sense to make replacement backbones until you also realise that you could create a laptop or a tablet or any other portable device that uses the same interoperable standard. And that standard - a hardware standard - is where things go badly wrong. Because Google has so much money they've created an entirely new hardware standard, called MIPI UniPro. That's fine.... until you remember that "new" things get patented. And we know from long-standing precedent that the first ever company that creates a key strategic patent in a mass-volume market is the LAST company to ever create a key strategic patent in a mass-volume market. Why is that? It's because in a mass-volume market, even a $0.05 Patent licensing royalty per unit is simply too much. Companies already negotiate and haggle to the $0.00001 (1 thousandth of a cent) over the cost of keys on a phone or a keyboard, because the volumes - which range in the hundred millions - are so enormous, and the profit margins so slim, that those tiny costs when multiplied up could be the difference between success and failure in a competitve market. So the very first company that Google works with in the MIPI UniPro chipset market will be the absolute last company that Google ever works with in the MIPI UniPro chipset market. In other words, they have, through having too much money to throw around instead of thinking creatively about the consequences of what they're doing, accidentally created a monopoly supplier. And what happens when there is a monopoly supplier, especially in a mass-volume industry? Well, you can look up the news reports on the arrests surrounding the Cartelling in the LCD Industry a few years ago to get a clear indication of what that means. But if the situation surrounding the newly-created MIPI UniPro chipset is not enough, it's actually worse than that: LCDs are already pretty much cartelled as it is, and MIPI LCDs even more so. If Fairphones were to try to approach LG or other LCD manufacturer to place an order for only 10,000 conflict-mineral-free MIPI interface LCDs they would be absolutely laughed at, because the MOQs start at somewhere around ten times that amount, if not a hundred. Hardware products that use patented standards basically end up as monopolies and cartels, regardless of the good-will or wishes of Google claiming that Project Ara is "open". "Open" means you put the source code on the web site without needing to sign an NDA. "Open" means that you don't need to pay patent royalties or license fees to gain access to the chipsets and components. "Open" means you get access to the chipset datasheets without having to be a member of the "exclusive club". "Open" means you don't have to join an exclusive club at all. In fact, "Open" means that there are no barriers at all. Creating a modular interoperable phone standard can be done easily by using prior art and unpatented or expired-patented standards, which has the advantage of reducing the barriers to entry for everyone. As it is, this little-recognised automatic Cartelling that Google has unthinkingly set up for itself basically means that it will be two or more decades before anyone but Google themselves creates the kinds of mass-volume low-cost modular phones that they are desperately trying to sell to the world "in good faith". Absolutely nobody will help them to do that because the patent royalties at the low-end mass-volume market rates are simply too much. And the Research and Development Team at Google, who have been given more money than they have been given sound business sense, are simply completely unaware. Which is a real pity, because the whole concept is something that the world could really, really do with.
Mel Tisdale
I just hope that they manage to make the thing operate like a normal camera, especially in the way one holds it.
MatthewHarden
I want a thermostat on my phone so my A/C kicks on depending on/off depending on the room i'm in.
JasonStat
It will be exciting to see what modules will be included from the start - also, can see apps coming out as a module that fully integrate all their capabilities. I am tracking this project here - If you guys were interested to get updates as it progresses towards release http://liovinci.com/i/ara
RasielSuarez
In principle it's a good idea but in practice I don't think it will work on account of phones being too cheap. They're already treated as though disposable; that is, people will typically upgrade to a new phone every other year or so. That means you want an entirely new system. You don't simply wish you could upgrade the processor or the screen. Where I see the most promise is taking smartphones to the next level: making a standardized expansion slot so you can bolt on niche hardware sort of how you can hack a phone to run, say, a geiger counter. Oh if only Google would hire me!
LaxmanRao
Google project Ara is quite exciting and help people to assemble their own smartphones to suit their needs. There is critism for the delay, but Google is working hard to bring this concept in the market. Anxiously waiting for release of Ara. A. S. Bhasker Raj Bangalore India
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