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

The smartphone formula over the last decade has become set in stone, with manufacturers packaging components into plastic or aluminium and pushing it to customers for a set price.

However, Google, the maker of Android, wants to disrupt this model with Project Ara, an initiative currently being worked on by the Google Advanced Technology and Products group in prototype form. It's a modular smartphone that - much like a traditional PC - brings you the ability to swap out components on the fly, rather than having to buy a whole new device when you're ready for a new camera or keyboard.

The Google ATAP group announced on Wednesday the first developer conference for the Project Ara smartphone will take place in April, extinguishing doubts the modular smartphone project is just a pipe dream and a concept. Google actually wants to bring this to consumers. So what's this all about? 

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, in theory, would allow you to build the phone of your dreams and not have you stuck with the phone manufacturers want you to have. Like a customisable gaming PC, you'd be able to swap out the components you want, with the certain aspects you want strengthened (or weaker to save money).

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.

Is a Qwerty keyboard your thing? You can just remove one module from the exoskeleton and add another. The same goes for a better camera, bigger battery, or louder speaker. Let's say the camera isn't your thing: you could save money by buying a lesser megapixel module, and then put the savings toward a more useful module.

Not just a pipedream

We, along with other members of the media, were very skeptical of Project Ara when it was announced in October 2013. It seemed very futuristic, and we saw it as a project that wouldn't come to market until many years down the road. It was seen as just something for Motorola to tout, making itself look futuristic.

However, in December 2013, then Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside, changed our thinking when he discussed a prototype and challenged skeptics.

“There is a [Project Ara] prototype and it is pretty close,” Motorola’s CEO told interviewer Marques Brownlee. “The idea is you have a skeleton that holds together a set of components and the components slide in and out. If we have the interfaces and the protocols that enable the speaker to speak directly to the CPU then this would all be possible.”

Google showed the first images of the Project Ara prototype on Wednesday in a posting on its Google+ ATAP page. The prototype is full of computer chips and tiny slots where components could slide in. It doesn't look like a product ready for market by a long shot and isn't as flashy as the concepts of the device. However, the prototype shown in the photos highlight Google really does have something physical in the readying stages for developers.

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 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. 

Developer conferences

The Ara Module Developers' Kit will be shown off for the first time at Google's developer conference for Project Ara taking place 15 April to 16 April at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Google says the conference "will consist of a detailed walk-through of existing and planned features of the Ara platform, a briefing and community feedback sessions on the alpha MDK, and an announcement of a series of prize challenges for module developers."

The event in April isn't the only project Ara event for 2014. Google said on Wednesday it's planning two more for the year. Developers and Ara enthusiasts who can't make it to the events will be able to catch live streams Google will be hosting to keep up with the announcements.

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.

The real question on everyone's mind is when will Project Ara launch. Google hasn't indicated when it sill be available for the public, but it has shown interest in opening the initiative up on a wide scale to developers for testing and to see if it is really something that can be valuable to consumers.

"We’re excited to take this next step with Project Ara, and see where the developer community takes the platform," Google wrote in a posting on Google+ Wednesday.