Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone is finally becoming a reality. Ara smartphones will give users more choice in the features, capabilities, appearance, and cost of their phone. Google will accomplish the goal of creating an endlessly upgrade-able and customizable phone by providing the basic frame, or “endoskeleton,” to which users can add swappable modules containing each of the phone’s components, such as its processor, storage, battery, camera, speakers, and more. So how does Google plan to make this modular smartphone a reality? What will it look like when it hits the market? And what does Google have in mind for Ara’s future?
Where will Project Ara go in 2015?
Google announced at its Project Ara Module Developers Conference that it plans to publicly launch its first Project Ara smartphones in Puerto Rico this year. VentureBeat reports that to make the modular phones a reality, Google is partnering with Ingram Micro, OpenMobile, and Claro. Ingram Mobile will handle the retail logistics of the pilot, and OpenMobile and Claro will serve as carrier partners. Google plans to distribute the phones via a network of mobile, food truck style stores across the country.
Explaining its decision to take Ara phones to Puerto Rico first, the company notes that Puerto Rico has a mobile-first market, with 75% of Internet access accounted for by mobile devices. Additionally, Puerto Rico is under FCC jurisdiction, enabling Google to work out the regulatory approach to building and selling the devices, and has free trade zones that will enable the importing of modules from developers worldwide. TechCrunch notes that Google has also partnered with all eleven schools in the University of Puerto Rico system to connect Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects group with researchers in Puerto Rico who want to experiment with building modules for Ara.
What will Project Ara smartphones look like at launch?
It’s impossible to know exactly how Ara phones will look when they hit the market, but we’re a step closer to knowing thanks to Google’s revelation of a new prototype. As VentureBeat reports, Google unveiled the latest Project Ara prototype at the conference. Paul Eremenko, director of Project Ara, announced during the event on the Google campus that the “Spiral 2″ prototype features a 3G modem, an RF bus to support antennas, and a completely different kind of processor module that uses application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) instead of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The screen used by the prototype features a resolution of 1280 by 720.
Google has developed eleven prototype modules that slide into the phone — with more surely to come from third-party developers — and placed the magnets that secure the modules to the phone into the frame. (The company hopes that there will be between 20 and 30 modules built by late 2015.) Eremenko noted that Google has moved away from the original plan of depending on 3D printing for Ara hardware, and will instead use a dye sublimation process.
A Spiral 3 prototype is now in the works, and Eremenko says that it will bring the radios up to 4G LTE, while adding more space in the endoskeleton for larger batteries. He noted that battery life is a challenge for Ara, with current prototypes taking a 20% to 30% hit compared to traditional devices with similar specifications. Its hoped that the Spiral 3 will enable a battery that will last “all day.”
How will Project Ara change the smartphone market?
The strategy behind Project Ara, as evidenced by the tagline, “Designed exclusively for 6 billion people” on its website, is to get smartphones into the hands of billions of people who have never had one. The cost of one of the modular phones will depend upon the modules chosen, with the Project Ara website placing the cost of the components for an entry-level Ara phone in the $50 to $100 range.
The adaptability of the devices comes with an entirely new set of possibilities. As VentureBeat notes, Google’s Roshni Srinivasan explains that the devices’ highly customizable nature could dramatically impact the rate at which people buy new smartphones, and Ara smartphones could spark an entirely new “secondary market” as consumers give away unwanted components, or exchange them with other users. Or, they could sell the components they don’t want in order to buy new ones.
Re/Code notes that Google’s Regina Dugan likened Ara smartphones to “other moments in technology where the benefits of mass participation outweighed other factors like economics and efficiency.” Dugan noted that chip design, a field once relegated to just a few hundred people until better design tools were created, had an initial cost in terms of productivity but led to far more useful semiconductors. Personal computers enabled large numbers of people to use computers, but were underpowered compared to mainframes until software made the PC one of the most powerful tools available.
As for how Google will push Project Ara to catalyze a similar change in the smartphone market, Dugan explained, “We’re going to have to make hardware design more like software design,” noting that while the Project Ara development kit that Google has already released is a start, better simulation tools are necessary. Google says that it is creating a tool to enable consumers to build their own Ara phones, and is also working to give financial guarantees to hardware makers who commit to building specific Ara modules.
From Dugan’s perspective, the key to Ara’s success is getting the project into a commercial market, where people beyond Google and a small group of developers can shape its future. Re/Code notes that even Google isn’t sure of the best path for the device to take, and Dugan says, “Our desire to predict the future far exceeds our ability to do so.”