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’d just swap the old component for a new one. It sounds great, but will it work? Update: Project Ara has started developing a market place for its modular phones which compares to the Google Play Store. Head to the "when will we see more about Project Ara?" section further down for more information about this development.
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 favours 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.
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?
There’s a conference, AraDev, in January. That promises more details of the product roadmap and the plans for the pilot. Naturally we’ll be keeping a close eye on it, and on any other Project Ara developments.
Update: Project Ara, in cooperation with Globant, is now developing a dedicated marketplace as a main source of all Project Ara modules, related hardware and, as it may seem, Android apps. Globant reports:
The marketplace will be analogous to Google's Play store for Android apps, and will also include reviews and recommendations by its users.
The world will be able to get a glimpse of what’s to come during the next Developers Conference in January 2015 where Project Ara will be showing off a preview of their market plans. Developers are already invited to take part in some of the conferences and can find more information as well as register on the Project Ara site.
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?