LEGO doesn’t make phones, but if it did, it would probably make something very like Project Ara. Instead of buying a phone that’s obsolete within a matter of months, Ara proposes that you buy a modular design instead. When one part gets old or a better version appears, you just swap the old component for a new one. It sounds great, but will it work? Update: The Project Ara team has just announced its key plans for 2015 at its second Project Ara Developers Conference. Head to the updated section below to find out what happened.
Update: Paul Eremenko, the Project Ara director, took to the stage to talk about Project Ara plans for 2015. Roughly the first half of the year will be spent on finalizing the Spiral hardware, which will be used on the prototype devices used in the market pilot which will follow in the second half of 2015 (though no hard date was confirmed).
The market pilot is being conducted to answer a variety of questions that the developers still have, including concerns regarding how choice scares consumers, and how it can often lead to disappointment after purchase. Eremenko said that the only way to research this was through the market pilot.
The market pilot will be held in, yep, you guessed it, Puerto Rico and if successful it will be subsequently launched in more markets down the line.
Price will be up to you. Because it's customizable, the price for the basic Project Ara hardware will start low, and you can spend as much as you want buying better components.
Paul Eremenko closed by saying that Project Ara could "reshape the mobile landscape" and that he found this idea "scary". Scary in a good way, we hope.
The conference ended with a short but exciting promo video displaying some of the capabilities of Project Ara: adding a second battery to the module for twice the power, swapping in a bigger speaker speaker if audio is your thing. There was even a night-vision component shown! Check it out below:
Project Ara: what’s the big idea?
We first heard about Project Ara back in 2013 when it was called PhoneBloks. Google gave it a new name and built a prototype earlier this year, and it retained project Ara when it sold its recently acquired Motorola division to Lenovo.
The idea behind Project Ara is simple enough, although Google doesn’t do it any favors by describing it as “a development effort to create a modular hardware ecosystem”. It takes a smartphone and breaks it down into LEGO-style blocks, and those blocks are attached to each other and to a metal base plate using magnets. The base plate is shaped with block-sized slots to make assembly easier and to help reinforce the overall structure.
Who is Project Ara for?
At the moment it’s for hardware and software developers, but the ultimate aim is to bring Ara to the next 5 billion people, the people who don’t currently have mobile internet access.
Project Ara price and release date
When does Project Ara come out and how much will it cost? Both answers are currently Google guesses: the hope is to have a limited pilot in 2015 with a manufacturing cost of $50 to $100 per device. That won’t necessarily be the street price, however: manufacturers have to make some money too.
Is Project Ara connected to the Nexus range or Google Silver?
No, it’s a completely separate project. Ara devices will run Android, but they won’t be Nexus- or Google-branded products.
Project Ara features: why would I want a Project Ara phone?
Lack of built-in obsolescence is a major selling point here. If you’ve ever binned a perfectly good phone because you wanted better battery life, a better camera sensor or a better mobile data experience you’ll know that in many cases you’re sacrificing perfectly good components for the one or two extra features you want. With a Project Ara phone you’d be able to replace just the bits you want to replace. You wouldn’t even have to turn your phone off. It’d save you money, save the environment, make people find you even more sexually attractive… you get the idea. In the long term you might even be able to 3D-print the components to make a smartphone that’s completely and utterly unique.
Another key selling point is repairability. If something goes wrong with the innards of your smartphone it’s often new-device time; with an Ara device you’d just replace the broken bit and keep on computing. That helps cut down on unnecessary electronic waste too.
How did Project Ara get its name?
The project’s lead mechanical designer’s name is Ara. Just as well he isn’t called Sammy Crap-phone.
What is the Project Ara module marketplace?
The Project Ara module marketplace is where the modules (components) for the device will be bought and sold. It has been compared to the Google Play Store, with similar user-reviews and recommendations, but instead of apps it will contain batteries, cameras, speakers etc.
Phonebloks, the team behind Project Ara, has recently written a blog post which clarifies the workings of this space, saying the Ara Module Marketplace is:
an e-commerce portal that enables a two-sided market between module developers and consumers. Google will help module manufacturers with the sale, the payment processing and will verify that the modules are safe and that they respect all the technical specifications. A third party logistic provider will manage the storage, shipping and all trade issues.
Does Project Ara have an accompanying app?
Yes. Google has just released MDK 0.2, the second major iteration of its toolkit for third-party developers, which includes details on how best to create a module for Project Ara. Additionally, the new MDK references an Ara Manager app, which will "allow users to get detailed information on all the modules currently attached to their device and swap them by commanding the [electro-permanent magnets] in the Endo to release." In layman's terms, this app will allow users to troubleshoot and configure the various modules they plug into their phones.
Project Ara all sounds too good to be true. Is Project Ara vaporware?
Maybe. Early coverage suggested that Ara could be as big a deal as Google Glass, but of course so far Google Glass hasn’t been that big a deal. The main areas of concern are weight and bulk - by its very nature an Ara device can’t possibly be as slim as today’s all-in-one smartphones - and whether the cost of buying multiple components means that an Ara phone would end up costing more than an off-the-shelf one, which would seriously ruin its sales. There are potential compatibility issues and performance concerns too. Remember the good old days of Windows PCs with their endless device driver problems and hardware conflicts? Exactly.
Project Ara has often been compared to the idea of building your own PC: instead of buying a device that isn’t quite perfect, if you go down the DIY route you can end up saving money and making a machine that fits your needs perfectly. That’s true, but if you look at the sales figures most people are perfectly happy with a good-looking laptop.
When will we see more about Project Ara?
Google is gearing up for a "market pilot" scheduled for the 2nd half of 2015, where Project Ara will be made public. Google has named Puerto Rico as the site for this introduction (for a number of socio-economic reasons) and if it's a success then Project Ara will soon expand to other territories.
Should I be excited about Project Ara?
Cautiously, yes. If it delivers on its promises you could see the equivalent of the Google Play Store for smartphone hardware as well as apps. A phone that never becomes obsolete, that doesn’t require really expensive replacements every year or two and that can be repaired for pennies is a great idea, and the customization options are effectively limitless. If you want a device that’s truly your own, Ara promises to be the ultimate way of creating it.
That said, if Ara was Android we’d still be in the days of Android Astro Boy, Bender and R2-D2: a system with lots of potential that isn’t remotely ready for prime time. It arguably took Android four years to really hit its stride (with Ice Cream Sandwich, AKA Android 4.0), and getting the hardware equivalent right might take even longer. If Ara works it could revolutionize mobile computing. It just probably won’t do it in 2015.
What do you think of Project Ara? Are you looking forward to modular phones?