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 standalone device could go directly into your Ara phone in the future.
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.
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.
You can get video updates on Project Ara through Phoneblok's YouTube page.
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.
The Project Ara team 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.
Many third-party developers are working with the Project Ara team, but anyone else can build hardware, thanks to industry standard power and connectivity hardware. Sennheisser will be developing specialised audio modules and Toshiba has recently announced the first camera modules for the smartphone.
3D Systems has also announced it will get involved by allowing users with 3D printers to make parts for the Ara, like back covers for modules. Speaking of 3D-printing, Project Ara is looking at printing module shells (also called endos) and has been working on a production system.
Modules will be hot-swappable meaning they can be changed without turning off the device. Even battery can be swapped out thanks to a reserve. Google is using electro-permanent magnets to keep parts in place, and each of the modules will connect to the endoskeleton using spring-loaded pins.
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.
Motorola 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. This should allow more manufacturers to create hardware and do away with current development fees.
One way the Project Ara team 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.
The Project Ara team is currently working to create an online marketplace, a bit like Google Play, solely for buying hardware modules. It's expected that in the future other companies will be able to sell their hardware add-ons through this platform.
The Project Ara team recognises there may be a sharing of modules and will be supporting that in whatever form it emerges.
The latest Android operating system will be modified slightly to make it suitable for the Ara. 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.
Although Project Ara devices will run the Android operating system, the project is considered a development effort and not an official Android or Nexus project. In fact, because Project Ara is a development effort, it's also not considered an official Google product.
What is Spiral 2?
The newest Project Ara prototype is called Spiral 2. It's a block-based modular smartphone and builds upon the MDK version 0.20.
Specifications for the Spiral 2 include a 1280 x 720 display, light and proximity sensors, 5-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, 3G modem with a Band 2 antenna, separate Band 5 antenna, battery, speaker module, and a Marvell PXA1928 or NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor block.
The Project Ara team unveiled 11 different prototype modules, each of which acts as a reference design for developers, and Spiral 2 supports hot-swapping those modules. One example module is a pollution sensor that turns your smartphone into a portable air-quality gage of sorts.
Although the hardware aspect of Spiral 2 is complete, the firmware is not. Other things that are still in the works, mostly because they're complicated, include better battery technologies and getting suppliers on board, discrete GPUs from partners, and identity modules.
An identity module is just in the conception stages at this point but could contain all your IDs, security certificates, and other information.
What about Spiral 3?
Google has explained what we can expect for Spiral 3, the next Project Ara prototype. It will feature an inductive data connection on the phone so modules and the endo can communicate with no actual contact. Spiral 3 will also support 4G/LTE.
Spiral 2 has a 1x1 block that includes a microUSB port for charging and syncing, but Spiral 3 will feature wireless connections instead. Spiral 3 should also debut around the same time as the module marketplace and MDK version 0.5.
When is Project Ara launching and for how much?
Project Ara will launch a pilot programme that will take place in Puerto Rico. This was scheduled for 2015 but got moved back to 2016. There will be an initial test market in a few US locations.
An entry-level Ara device is expected to be in the $50-100 range, though that's just the "bill-of-materials cost". The Project Ara team said the final price with a carrier contract could be more or less than that.
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.