Project Ara with its concept of modular design took people’s breath away earlier this month at the Google I/O conference.
The original concept behind the phone was to help enthusiasts build their own phone, just like PCs. Giving more power, all you would need is to swap out your processors and cellular radios as newer ones come along.
This swapping and upgrading hardware from ecosystem partners will make buying new smartphones for up gradation redundant.
But Google wasn’t the real ideator of the ‘modular’ phone concept. The concept started to gain popularity after a Dutch designer Dave Hakkens announced the Phonebloks concept in 2013. The name Phonebloks was with reference to Lego-like blocks that could easily be changed to transform the functionality of the phone.
But Google seems serious about this concept. Being a part of the ATAP skunkworks (part of Motorola, but Google never sold it to Lenovo), Project Ara now report directly to Rick Osterloh, Head of Google’s new hardware division (also a transplant from Motorola).
But, with Google betting high on their hardware strategy through Ara, let’s take a look at few things, you should know about this device:
- It allows you to build your own phone, literally customisable
Google’s modular phone is assembled from parts, the so-called modules just like Legos at the back of the phone. These parts might include a camera, processor, internal storage, battery, a screen and all kind of sensors.
Therefore, Ara’s body is an endoskeleton that holds these modules at one place. There are six flexible slots to swap or put these modules in. What does this mean? This means that if you’re not happy with your camera or want longer battery charge or speakers for a party, you can now replace it all. The phone can also support two batteries at one time!
The thinking behind Ara was that instead of buying a phone that’s obsolete within a matter of months, you’d buy one with a modular design instead. However, the main frame of the phone does act like a motherboard, holding the CPU, RAM, etc., which will also be interchangeable soon in the future versions.
- It is the first phone ever that Google is manufacturing itself
Being diligent to the cause, Google has decided to manufacture the phone.
With their previous flagship Android handsets been built by one of Google's partners most recently Huawei and LG Ara is the first handset that Google has ever designed from scratch.
- The developer version of the phone is coming out later this year
All set to launch this fall, Google claims that the Developer Edition of the phone will come with four modules to start: a speaker, a camera, an E-Ink display (like the one you'd find on an Amazon Kindle e-reader), and an expanded memory module.
- The battery for this phone can be swapped depending on your usage
Even if you pull out the battery, there is enough juice just in the frame to keep it running. But it wouldn’t last for long.
According to Rafa Camargo, Lead Engineer of Project Ara, consumers can expect a full day of battery life from the consumer version of Ara, and estimates that adding a single modular battery should boost that by roughly 45 percent.
- It can have a glucometer integrated as a module
Ara gives a start to truly customising your phone according to your needs and sensibilities. Through the phone hardware modules like glucometers for diabetics or even modules and sensors to measure the air quality.
Medicine is an interesting market, where people are willing to pay for technology. However, only a small percentage of people have any given need. "Nobody's going to build a phone with that (a glucometer) integrated," says Rafa.
- It would cost the same amount as other premium smartphones, with performance on par
Till last year, the rumours were that Google would release Ara at a mere cost of $50. However, that was the basic phone with no cellular network, with an upgradation module. However, since its last public appearance, Google has been hush about the pricing of the device, including the cost of the modules.
- Google will make its own store and community through Ara
Google will market the phone through its own e-commerce stores, with modules available for sale on these online stores.
Google also plans to have its own certification programme for Ara modules, and the phone will reject ones that haven't been approved. Rafa says,
"We want to create a hardware ecosystem on the scale of the software app ecosystem."
This will also include a community through which you can share extra modules with other users of Ara.
- It would be available in all sizes
Showcasing the medium prototype which is of the size of the Galaxy S5, Google is also working on a mini and a large size prototype for the product.
- It is named after the lead mechanical designer
It is reported that Ara is named after their lead mechanical designer. The website on the other hand states
“As it turns out, our lead mechanical designer is named Ara. And we like him. And we also like his name. So we named the phone Ara. We hope you like it too.”
- What’s powering it?
According to the website, powering the simplicity is Greybus, a new bit of software deep in the Android stack. Greybus supports instantaneous connections, power efficiency, and data-transfer rates of up to 11.9 Gbps.
- Which are the companies’ already developing modules?
It is reported that, among the confirmed companies are Marvell and Nvidia (application processors), Toshiba (camera, display, activity measurement and other modules), Vestigen (health modules), Yezz (wide range of modules with different functionalities), InnoLux (display module), Phison in partnership with Kingston (data storage modules), Intersoft Eurasia (radiation sensor module), Sennheiser or Harman (audio modules).
Batteries and speakers might look as the obvious way to hit the market. But for the Ara team, the vision is bigger to integrate with third-party hardware developers to build the unimaginable. Right from a pepper spray dispenser to multiple sensors to even maybe alcohol breathalyzers. Google has also onboarded a company for the same.
And if you think that Ara is the last phone you’ll need by looking at it, you might be mistaken. According to Camargo, there is a possibility to swap out and switch even processors, which will evolve with the future versions of the product.
Tarush is driven towards delivering unbiased and accurate reportage while engaging with as many mediums as possible to narrate a fresh perspective. Working for the past few years in the digital space with YourStory, he has covered the Indian technology ecosystem extensively, focusing on new age Fintech companies, while building strong connects within the industry.