Update 2 September 2016: We've just had word that Google has cancelled Project Ara. According to Reuters: "Google has suspended Project Ara, its ambitious effort to build what is known as a modular smartphone with interchangeable components, as part of a broader push to streamline the company's hardware efforts." Google has not yet commented on its decision.
You may have heard the term 'modular smartphone' bandied around but what does that mean and what is Project Ara? We explain what you need to know about Google's modular smartphone including the release date, features and developer editon. Read: The best smartphones 2016.
Wouldn't it be cool if you could swap individual bits such as the camera for a better one if you want to? Here we explain how Google Project Ara could enable exactly that, and how it could flip the industry on its head.
What is Project Ara: What's a modular smartphone?
A modular smartphone in it's simplest form is a handset which can be easily upgraded by swapping individual components, or modules, in a plug and play style. It can be likened to upgrading a PC with a new motherboard, CPU or graphics card – out with the old, in with the new one component at a time.
It's a bit like Lego. You start with a bare-bones shell then add a processor, memory, battery, camera and other modules to create a smartphone that's perfect for you. Also see: Fairphone 2 hands-on review.
It could be the only phone you need to buy because every time an updated part is available, such as a new camera, you can buy that individual part rather than an entirely new device. It could also be possible to opt for a larger battery instead of a better camera, for example.
Project Ara is being developed by Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP), following Motorola being sold to Lenovo. Project Ara is based on Phonebloks (below) which was created by Dave Hakken.
In the case of Project Ara, the modules slide in from the side and are held in place by magnets. Instead of using unreliable contacts, the device will use wireless 'capacitive interconnects'. There are three different sizes of module: small square, big square and rectangle.
Update May 2016: At Google I/O 2016, the firm has announced that the Ara has been rethought somewhat. It unveiled a new Developer Edition which is scaled back somewhat from the original concept. The device now consists of a frame which 'contains all the functionality of a smartphone' so it includes the CPU, GPU, antennas, sensors, battery and display. Google says this frees up more room for hardware in each module.
On the back are six modular slots. These are all plug and play thanks to 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."
The design is also tweaked to be more cubical and more like Phonebloks but the creator isn't too happy with Google's changes. On the new frame Dave Hakkens said: "It means your phone still gets obsolete after a while. What if your screen breaks? Well you still need to replace the entire phone. And after a couple of years it gets slow and you need to replace your entire skeleton."
"A system like this makes other companies want to compete instead of collaborate. They will build their own modular phone, want to create their own ecosystem with their own sizes and connectors. Making modules not compatible with each other anymore. Which ends up in a lot of different modules. Developers will need to make their hardware work on different platforms. If Google truly wants to make a phone for the entire world, they should collaborate with others and make an open standard owned by the industry. Not one company." he added on the subject of Google controlling the ecosystem of modules.
Project Ara: UK release date and price
At its first Project Ara developer conference, Google confirmed that it aimed to release the device in January 2015. The base piece, called the 'gray phone' is set to be priced at $50. Of course, the individual modules will vary in price.
“It’s called the Gray Phone because it’s meant to be drab gray to get people to customize it,” said Project Ara's Paul Eremenko. Google began shipping Ara development boards to developers in July.
In a later developer conference, which was held on 14 January 2015, Google unveiled 'Spiral 2' and announced that it was planning a Puerto Rico trial of 'Spiral 3' in the third quarter of this year, made from converted food trucks. That is no longer happening, it has confirmed on Twitter, and Project Ara has been delayed until some time in 2016.
Update May 2016: As per above, Google has rethought Ara and the Developer Edition will be released this autumn. You can fill out a form on the new site if you're interested. This means we're getting closer to a consumer model which you'll be able to buy in 2017 so stay tuned for more information.
Project Ara: Challenges
You might be drooling onto your keyboard at the thought of a device like this but there are some downsides and plenty of hurdles. The way a modular smartphone works, means that it's going to be bigger and heavier than current smartphones.
By the time you buy the gray phone and all the modules you want, it's likely to end up being more expensive than an equivalent pre-made smartphone. Even with clever techniques, it's possible there will be connection issues between the modules.
Then there's the fact that not all module combinations will provide a good experience. For example, a low power processor isn't going to cope well with running a higher resolution screen or top-end camera.
Currently, a smartphone's software is optimised (or should be) to the hardware on which it runs. This is a little different when your components can be completely different to the next persons's.
In some ways these problems already exist with Android smartphones and even little things such as the use of different Bluetooth chipsets means third-party products work with only certain handsets.
Plus, there's no guarantee that there will ever be new components released. In the past we've seen laptops with interchangeable graphics cards, yet despite promises to the contrary, no upgrades were ever launched leaving users disappointed.
There are a lot of potential problems with modular smartphones like Project Ara but if they can be ironed out, then these device could cause a storm in the industry and could become the new norm – Build-a-Bear but with smartphones.
Let us know what you think below and if you have any further questions which you want answered on the subject.