Project Ara is Google's vision for making truly customisable smartphones. If there's one thing we know from the current smartphone market, it's that there's no such thing as a "one size fits all", but having a device with bits you can swap out and replace takes us one step closer to that.
For a while it seemed Google's ATAP division had all but neglected the project, but then it came back at I/O 2016 with a full live demo, and it's almost ready to be released to the public. Since it was first announced it has seen some fairly major changes, but the original spirit remains.
Project Ara: Framework
What started off as a concept to allow users to change any part of the device they could think of has turned into something a little more realistic. Sadly, for the tech nerds among you, Google won’t let you change any of the core internals. That means you won't be able to swap out the processor, RAM, antennas or storage to beef up its performance.
Instead of buying an almost completely empty exoskeleton and then purchasing various models, the "exoskeleton" or frame will already have a built-in battery, processor, antenna, radios and memory components, as well as a non-removable display.
The frame itself has been built with long-lasting latches and connectors to ensure that modules stay secure. In fact, Google says the connectors are capable of lasting 10,000 swap-out/in cycles without dying.
On the software side, Google's ATAP team has developed Greybus to support instantaneous module connections that are power-efficient and with data-speeds up to 11.9Gbps. That basically means that any information transferred between a module and the phone's brain will be very quick, leaving you with a responsive and fluid experience, as if they're meant to be there.
Project Ara: Modules
What started off with the dream of having a phone that could last forever has turned into a modular phone more in line with the LG G5 and, if rumours are to be believed, the upcoming Moto Z, but far more adaptable than either of those two.
Although the core internals won't be interchangeable, Project Ara will still allow a number of key hardware modules to be removable. You'll be able to choose from different camera modules, add on multiple loudspeakers, expandable storage and even snap on a more powerful battery.
In its "What's next" promo video, Google shows off the ability to customise the device to make it more optimised for musicians by swapping in multiple loudspeakers and a more powerful microphone, as well as the option to add in modules designed specifically for health and fitness tracking.
More trivial options include a kickstand, a monochromatic secondary display for showing useful info (like the weather), a tiny compartment for storing the odd TicTac, and different colour modules made from various materials purely to match what you are wearing, or make it feel different. Whether you want a splash of colour, a real wood panel, or some concrete; customisation is key.
In short: Ara still wants to be the phone that can suit you, wherever you're going and whatever you happen to be into.
Although it may not seem like it, possibly the most important feature of the modules is that they're "hot-swappable". That means you'll be able to remove them, and swap in new ones without having to reboot the phone. Users won't even need to go hunting for drivers to download so that a new module works. It's true plug-and-play.
Even more impressive is that the modules can auto-eject with a simple voice command. "OK Google, eject the loudspeaker".
It's not as ambitious as it was, but it sounds fun, and it is actually achievable.
Project Ara: Potential and future versions
As with many great products, the potential for Project Ara could be huge, particularly in business and hospitals where developers could create bespoke modules for the device. Google already has a list of hardware partners lined up ready for launch, including the likes of Samsung, Sony Pictures, E-Ink, Toshiba, Harman and Panasonic, among others.
In a hospital, for instance, healthcare professionals could be equipped with phones with built-in highly sensitive sensors for on-the-fly heart rate monitoring, or even a blood sugar level sensor to save diabetes sufferers from having to cart around their monitoring gadgets.
Google wants module makers to build technology we've never seen in a smartphone. Whether that be well-known brands we've already heard of, or ambitious developers with great ideas.
The current version of Project Ara, which recently got demo'd at Google's I/O conference in San Francisco, has six spaces for modules. All slots are generic, and any module fits in any of the spaces. Some of them, like the E-Ink secondary display are square, and take up two spaces. Others, like the camera and loudspeaker take up just one space.
Perhaps more vital is that Project Ara is still future-proof, to a certain extent. Current modules will fit future frame designs and products, and future modules will fit the existing framework.
With this being the case, it's clear Google isn't restricting Ara to just smartphones. It wants to make a "truly modular computing platform", so who knows what else the team at Google's ATAP division is looking into.
Project Ara: Release date
At long last we have a release timeframe to look forward to. Project Ara development kit units will be shipped out from the end of 2016, with a consumer model being targeted for early next year. With any luck we might actually be able to buy this thing in 2017.
We don't know exactly how much it will cost, or if it will be available through more traditional retail stores. The likelihood is that Google will sell the hardware directly through its own store, along with a selection of modules, which will undoubtedly increase in numbers following launch.
Background: Phonebloks and Motorola beginnings
Project Ara was originally rooted in Motorola, when it was owned by Google, under the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group. When Google sold Motorola to Lenovo in early 2014, Google was able to keep the group under its Google Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP).
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". The Project Ara team has said it will partner in some aspects with Phonebloks to build Project Ara, but it doesn't sound like a full-on partnership.
Project Ara: Software
The latest Android operating system will be modified slightly to make it suitable for the Ara. With it being a Google project, it will resemble pure, stock Android but with a few under-the-hood tweaks to optimise it for the modular hardware. The project's team leader. Paul Eremenko, has promised the Android team is working to make sure the Ara phone is a priority and gets the latest updates.
Tester kits have been available for some time from Google, which the company has been dishing out in waves to make sure it has the widest input when perfecting the phone.