What You Need to Know About the Project Ara Smartphone

Google Project Ara

If you own a smartphone, it’s likely that you’ve felt the need to buy a new model every year or two. While some must have their hands on the latest devices, this pattern of constantly upgrading can be quite wasteful and costly over time.  

So you can imagine the excitement a few years back when a Dutch designer released an online video showcasing a smartphone concept that could in theory be future-proof.

Built around the somewhat radical notion of a modular parts, the Phonebloks design allowed for various components such as the camera or touchscreen to be easily swapped out instead of replacing the entire phone with a newer one.

It just so happened that tech giant Google had been working on developing its own modular device and so the buzz really got going when it was later announced that the company would collaborate with Phonebloks to further the project. Since then, the developers behind Google's Project Ara have periodically teased the public with early prototypes and periodic updates. And at the company's I/O conference in May 2016, the company announced that a version for developers would be available by the end of the year, with a consumer model due out in 2017.   

While its still early to speculate on what the final product will look like, all indications point to the team now taking a slightly less ambitious approach compared to what they originally had in mind.

    

Modularity comes with a whole host of problems

While it’s easy to envision various smartphone features as neatly compartmentalized parts that can be pieced together like Legos, it's actually much more complicated than that. Making the components modular also makes them bulkier as well as more expensive to manufacture, at least initially.

And making it so they're detachable sacrifices durability as developers found out back in August when an early prototype failed a drop test, leading to delays and as researchers figure out a solution. 

And since smartphones are systematically optimized to operate efficiently as a whole, a major challenge has been to achieve the same functionality with various parts that are interchangeable. There have been a number of delays since the project started and it wouldn’t be surprising if having to work out these kinks causes things to be pushed back later than planned.     

It won’t be future-proof

Dave Hakkens, who came up with the Phonebloks concept, recently expressed some disappointment with the direction that Google has decided to take in building the processor, battery, antenna, sensors and screen directly into the non-upgradable skeleton. This means only certain components such as the camera, speakers and projector are swappable.  

The original idea behind the Hakken’s concept was to come up with a modular system that enabled consumers to upgrade the important components, especially the processor, as a way to reduce electronic waste. Otherwise, smartphone users would still feel compelled to buy a new phone since newer more powerful hardware would be required to run more sophisticated software, apps and devices.

The six modules will allow for an unprecedented level of customization 

Despite scaling back on the original plan, the versatility to mix and match will be attractive to some folks. For instance, the phone can be fitted with two speakers rather than just one for a richer sound experience. Users can also load up the phone with multiple batteries for times of heavy use. 

To start, the latest version is slated to arrive with a swappable speaker, camera, E-Ink display and expanded memory module.

The phone will be part of a bigger ecosystem controlled by Google

With the Android operating system, Google developed the technology under an open source license, meaning outside parties have access to the source code and can customize it as they wish. This type of inclusive approach, however, won’t be applied to third party components for the Project Ara smartphone.

In an article on the Verge, the developers recently stated that any modules developed for the smartphone will require approval from Google as well as include some of Google’s code. While this will somewhat limit the possibilities, having a standardized ecosystem ensures that all parts of the device will function properly. 

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Nguyen, Tuan. "What You Need to Know About the Project Ara Smartphone." ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/project-ara-smartphone-4049960. Nguyen, Tuan. (2016, June 1). What You Need to Know About the Project Ara Smartphone. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/project-ara-smartphone-4049960 Nguyen, Tuan. "What You Need to Know About the Project Ara Smartphone." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/project-ara-smartphone-4049960 (accessed November 17, 2017).