Project Ara was Google's vision for making truly customisable smartphones. Sadly, it's no more. A September 2016 Reuters report stated that - although developer units were supposed to become available this year - Google has suspended the product.
It's a real shame because 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 Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. had all but neglected the project, but then it came back in early 2016 with a full live demo, and was almost ready to be released to the public. Since it was first announced it saw some fairly major changes, but the original spirit remained until the end.
Project Ara: Framework
What started off as a concept to allow users to change any part of the device they could think of turned into something a little more realistic. Sadly, for the tech nerds among you, Google changed its mind about letting you change any of the core internals.
Instead of buying an almost completely empty exoskeleton and then purchasing various models, the "exoskeleton" or frame would have had a built-in battery, processor, antenna, radios and memory components, as well as a non-removable display. Not quite the future-proof project it was aiming to be, but it was a necessity to make it real.
The frame itself was built with long-lasting latches and connectors to ensure that modules stayed secure. In fact, Google said the connectors were capable of lasting 10,000 swap-out/in cycles without dying.
On the software side, Google's ATAP team 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 would be very quick, leaving you with a responsive and fluid experience, as if they were meant to be there.
Project Ara: Modules
What started off with the dream of having a phone that could last forever turned into a modular phone more in line with the LG G5 and the Moto Z, but far more adaptable than either of those two.
Although the core internals wouldn't be interchangeable, Project Ara still allowed a number of key hardware modules to be removable. You could 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 showed 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 included a kickstand, a monochromatic secondary display for showing useful info (like the weather), a tiny compartment for storing the odd TicTac or tablet, and different colour modules made from various materials purely to match what you are wearing, or make it feel different.
Whether you wanted a splash of colour, a real wood panel, or some concrete; customisation is key.
In short: Ara wanted 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 was that they're "hot-swappable". That means users were able to remove them, and swap in new ones without having to reboot the phone. Users wouldn't even need to go hunting for drivers to download so that a new module works. It was true plug-and-play.
Even more impressive was that the modules could auto-eject with a simple voice command. "OK Google, eject the loudspeaker".
The latter plan maybe wasn't as ambitious as it the original project, but it sounded fun, and it was actually achievable. Sadly, it's no longer going to happen, unless Google ATAP takes it out of stasis.
Project Ara: Potential
As with many great products, the potential for Project Ara could have been huge, particularly in business and hospitals where developers could create bespoke modules for the device. Google had 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 wanted 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 last version of Project Ara, which recently got demo'd at Google's I/O conference in San Francisco, had six spaces for modules. All slots were generic, and any module fit in any of the spaces. Some of them, like the E-Ink secondary display were square, and took up two spaces. Others, like the camera and loudspeaker took up just one space.
Perhaps more vital is that Project Ara was potentially still future-proof, to a certain extent. Modules were designed to fit future frame designs and products, and future modules would fit the original framework.
With this being the case, it's clear Google wasn't planning on restricting Ara to just smartphones. It wanted to make a "truly modular computing platform", so who knows what else the team at Google's ATAP division was looking into.
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 ATAP group.
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
With it being a Google project, the software resembled 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, had promised the Android team was working to make sure the Ara phone is a priority and got the latest updates.