Google to Unveil Project Ara, a Modular and Upgradeable Smartphone
Google's Project Ara was announced late last year and it seems Google is just about ready to release the details this April. Project Ara "aims to reinvent the smartphone by breaking it down into modules that can be assembled and customized in a limitless number of configurations."
The Project Ara concept originated from the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group at Motorola. Despite selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo earlier this year, Google apparently held onto the ATAP group. Today, Google announced it will be holding three Ara Developers' Conferences throughout the year, with the first one taking place April 15-16. The event will take place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, with tickets costing $100 ($25 for students), but it will also be streamed live online for no fee. This first event will focus on the alpha release of the Ara Module Developers' Kit (MDK), which is free for anyone to download.
Project Ara is exciting for a number of reasons. For one, Google is targeting a $50 price tag for the basic, Wi-Fi only model. From there, consumers will be able to purchase any number of modules to customize their phone to fit their needs, including the obvious "cellular connection" module. No longer would you be forced to pay for features you'd never use just because a manufacturer thinks they appeal to the masses. For example, you can choose the best camera module for your needs and budget. Or maybe you don't even need a camera at all and would rather put in a second battery? You can do that too. Many modules are hot-swappable, so you can actually keep a second battery connected and then swap in a camera module when needed.
The great thing about Project Ara is that you don't have to make those decisions right away – nor are you stuck with any decision you make. Maybe you go with a Tegra 4 chip now, but switch to Tegra K1 once that's released and/or after that drops in price. Project Ara basically provides the customization and upgradeability that PCs have enjoyed for years.
You'll also get to choose your size: "mini (rather basic), medium (mainstream) and jumbo (an oversized, phablet-style variant)." The endoskeleton, or endo for short, determines the size and is the one component that will be Google-branded. The endos are barebones aluminum frames that simply contain "a bit of networking circuitry so the modules can talk to each other, a tiny back-up battery and not much else." The modules you choose can be designed by any third-party manufacturer and each endo fits a certain amount – the medium endo has space for ten, while the other two were not mentioned. As you can see in the images below, modules come in different sizes, but as long as you select the correct size, almost anything can go anywhere.
The problem with going the modular route is of course the size. Modules are 4mm thick, with the current prototype coming in at 9.7mm when everything is assembled into the endo. That's markedly thicker than the 7.6mm iPhone 5S and 8.1mm Galaxy S5. There was also no mention on weight, though that would obviously depend on the components selected. And what if you drop the phone? Will the modules go flying in all different directions? Well, not all testing has been completed since it's only in the prototype phase, but the front modules are "secured with latches," while the back modules use "electropermanent magnets." Both front and back are locked in place via an app on the phone, so you would theoretically have to disengage the locking mechanism through the app to remove a module.
Of course, Google still needs third-party manufacturers to get on board with the idea, but the company is optimistic. In fact, it hopes to have the product on the market a year from now. 2015 could be a very interesting year in the mobile market.