For our money, one of the more interesting things happening in the world of mobile right now isn’t QHD displays or faster processors or higher megapixel counts or dual-lens cameras or even wearable tech, but the idea of customisable “modular” phones.
First announced last October, Project Ara is racing along at a fair old pace, and there’s been plenty of news to chew on over the past few months. Indeed, this week marks the first Project Ara Developers Conference, so what better time to pull all the facts together?
1. The Project Ara concept
Project Ara is described as “a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software.”
The Project Ara concept is fairly simple. Essentially, users will be able to put together their own phones, prioritising the components they think are important. If you never take pictures with a smartphone, you’ll be able to save a few quid by omitting the camera. Ditto LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth…
In practical terms, that means you’ll have a basic endoskeleton, or “Endo” as they’ve been calling it this week, with slots for components – the components you want – on both the front and rear.
2. There are three Project Ara sizes
Project Ara Endos will come in three sizes, namely Small (2x5), Medium (3x6) and Large (4x7), with the latter pencilled in for “future release” at the moment.
With the Small Endo, you can opt for a phone with a numeric keypad, while the Medium and Large Endos welcome a full QWERTY keyboard beneath the display – if you so desire. Remember, this is your phone.
3. It’s a Google ATAP thing with a dash of DARPA
The evolution of Project Ara has been fairly dramatic. The modular phone thing hit headlines last October thanks to the Phonebloks concept, and just a few days later Motorola – yes, Motorola – revealed it had been working on something similar.
While some have accused Project Ara of hijacking the Phonebloks concept, the former had already been in production for over a year. In fact, the two teams are working together, with Phonebloks’ Dave Hakkens credited with creating a modular phone community while the big boys deal with the technical stuff.
Of course, Lenovo swooped in and bought Motorola from Google in January, briefly casting doubt on the Project Ara thing. However, if anything, it’s been given a bit of a boost, becoming an official member of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group.
ATAP proudly adopts the “DARPA model” (yep, as in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which means they’re entirely committed to meeting their self-imposed deadlines and getting these modular phones into consumers' hands – one way or another.
"Innovation under time pressure is higher quality innovation," says Project Ara’s Paul Eremenko. "It tends to get rid of red tape, it tends to get rid of dithering, and an inability to make decisions. And it tends to take away risk aversion."
If you think Project Ara might fall by the wayside, think again.
4. First: the $50 Project Ara Grey Phone
As much as we’d love to put together a Large (4x7) Project Ara phone with a giant battery, super-fast processor and as much RAM as we can squeeze in (y’know, just for the sake of it), the first Project Ara phone will be, well, very much at the opposite end of the scale.
The Project Ara Grey Phone, penciled in for a January 2015 release, will cost just $50 to produce, and initially come with just a processor, Wi-Fi module and display. Nope, not even a cellular module, though users will be able to add to it, of course.
Don’t be disheartened, however, as there’s also talk of a larger Project Ara phone with a $500 manufacturing cost.
5. It’s still very much up in the air
Project Ara is certainly steaming ahead, but there are still countless things to iron out. One factor we hadn’t considered before this week was security for individual components. They are, after all, easily removable.
Eremenko explains: “To a large extent, that's a question for module developers. [It] seems like it would be a useful feature to have in a lot of modules, especially modules that store a lot of information.
“We don't envision it as a platform feature. It would be on a module-by-module basis."
And while Project Ara is definitely happening, it remains to be seen how much interest there’ll be. Will your average consumer care about picking their own processor, their own RAM, their own Wi-Fi module? Will it be a niche thing for mobile nerds? Will component manufacturers throw their weight behind the project?
Only nine months till we find out.