Google's Project Ara modular smartphone: Everything you need to know

Google wants to do to hardware what apps did to software. By creating a phone that can have each component changed Google believes it will drive down hardware pricing while allowing users to pick and choose what they want. That's what Google's Project Ara, a modular smartphone, aims to do.

Google wants any developer to be able to create modules for its Ara device, meaning kit you might have seen on Kickstarter in the past as a stand-alone device, could go directly into your Ara phone in the future.

Phonebloks and Motorola beginnings

The Project Ara team was originally rooted in Motorola, when it was owned by Google from 2012 to 2014, under the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group.

That said, when Google sold Motorola to Lenovo in early 2014, Google was able to keep the group under its Google Advanced Technology and Projects Group. Google is known for its crazy projects, so maybe it's for the best the Project is sticking around in Mountain View. 

Project Ara was inspired by the Phonebloks initiative, a similar project that wants to make "a phone worth keeping". Google has said it will partner in some aspects with Phonebloks to build Project Ara, but it doesn't sound like a full-on partnership.

What is a modular smartphone?

The Project Ara smartphone will allow everyone to build their own perfect smartphone. Where one person may want to spend more money on a high power camera, another may wish to splash out on more memory. Whatever the desired goal a user should be able to modify their device to suit that need.

Google would sell the exoskeleton for a set price, and then make a module store, much like the Google Play app marketplace, available so you can buy modules to upgrade your exoskeleton - aka phone - as you go.

Lots of third-party developers are working with Google but anyone else can also build hardware thanks to industry standard power and connectivity hardware. One manufacturer that is onboard is Sennheisser which has said it will be developing specialised audio modules for the smartphone.

3D Systems has also announced it will be getting involved. It will allow users with 3D printers to make their own parts for the Ara, like back covers for modules. 

Modules are hot-swappable meaning they can be changed without turning off the device. Even battery can be swapped out thanks to a reserve. Only screen and CPU will not be hot-swappable.

 

An open platform and MDK

Not all smartphone components work together. Some manufacturers put restrictions on their components, which makes for a stepping stone for the Google ATAP team.

Woodside revealed in December 2013 the Project Ara group is trying to make an open platform where components aren't made for a specific device and/or platform. Instead, the goal is to make them interchangeable...to work together.

One way Google plans to achieve this is through an Ara Module Developers’ Kit (MDK). It will give developers and manufacturers a way to work within a set of guidelines and technical specifications to build Ara modules to fit into the Project Ara smartphone. 

What software?

The latest Android L operating system will be modified slightly to make it suitable for the Ara. The project's team leader Paul Eremenko has promised that the Android team are working to make sure the Ara phone gets priority so the latest updates should be there as soon as they're available.

Android L is focused on offering far better battery life to devices thanks to a more streamlined OS.

When is Project Ara launching and for how much?

"We invite developers of all shapes and sizes: from major OEMs to innovative component suppliers to startups and new entrants into the mobile space," the Project Ara website states.

Tester kits have been available for some time from Google which it has been dishing out in waves to make sure it has the widest input when perfecting the phone.

Google has indicated that Project Ara should be ready to be revealed to the world from January 2015. How soon afrer that third-party modules are developed isn't clear.