Notice: Some information in this article is outdated. Read more recent version here: Everything about Project Ara – Google’s modular smartphone (June 7, 2016)
1. What is a modular phone?
A modular smartphone is a cellphone that is assembled from discrete parts, the so-called “modules”. The idea of a modular smartphone is to upgrade or replace the phone’s parts individually according to user’s needs and preferences. Such parts might include a camera, processor, internal storage, battery, screen and all kinds of sensors. This may save a lot of money to consumers, because modular phone users won’t need to buy a new device to keep up with the trend.
2. I haven’t heard about modular phones before. When did the idea come into existence?
A modular phone concept started to gain popularity after a Dutch designer Dave Hakkens announced Phonebloks concept in September 2013. The name Phonebloks was adopted as a reference to Lego-like blocks that users could easily construct and change.
3. What is Project Ara?
About the same time or a little earlier when Phonebloks idea was announced by Dave Hakkens, the concept of modular phone was picked up and developed by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group owned by Google and managed by Regina Dugan, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In the second half of 2014 Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, but retained the ATAP group as well as all its patents. Nowadays, mostly everything related to modular phones is associated with so-called Project Ara developed by Google.
4. Why “Ara”?
The official website says: “As it turns out, our lead mechanical designer is named Ara. And we like him. And we also like his name. So we named the phone Ara. We hope you like it too.”
5. How Ara phone looks like? How does it work?
The backbone of the modular Ara phone is “endoskeleton” (“endo”) – an aluminum frame with the slots for modules, which are attached to the endo with the help of electropermanent magnets. Endoskeleton connects all modules together by means of low-level protocols MIPI M-PHY and UniPro. These protocols enable modules to communicate with one another through a packet-switched network in the Endoskeleton.
Modules, which provide user interface (display, receiver, microphone), are attached to the front of the endo. Other functional modules, like camera, processor, battery, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc. are attached to the rear side of the endo.
6. What is the size of Ara phone?
Ara phone will be available in three sizes:
Small – 45x118x9.7mm (about the size of classic Nokia 3310)
Medium – 68x141x9.7mm (about the size of Samsung Galaxy S5)
Big – 91x164x9.7mm (slightly bigger than iPhone 6 Plus)
7. What are sizes of the Ara modules?
All Ara phones consist of 1×1, 1×2 and 2×2 modules with the sizes of approximately 22×22 mm, 22×44 mm and 44×44 mm respectively. So the length and width of the modules are strictly predefined.
Big Ara phone has five 2×2 modules and four 1×2 modules.
Medium Ara phone has two 2×2 modules, two 1×2 modules, two 2×1 modules and two 1×1 modules.
Small Ara phone has four 2×1 modules and two 1×1 modules.
However, modules may have different thickness depending on module purpose and size of hardware under the module shell. For example, it might be an extra-big battery, or a module with advanced photo camera.
8. Which operating system will be used in Ara phone? Will it be compatible with different OS?
According to ATAP modular Ara phone will work on Android. As far as known Google has no plans to expand their phone compatibility to Windows, Symbian or any other OS.
9. Is it possible to take out or insert modules without turning off the Ara phone?
The Ara platform is designed to let hot-swapping of modules, without requiring to power down the phone. For example it’s possible to slide out a camera and replace it with a battery whenever you need. However, it looks like Ara phone should be switched off for replacing processor module.
10. When will Ara phone be released?
At the second Ara developers conference Google ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects) team announced that the Ara phone market pilot would be released in Puerto Rico in 2015 (probably in the 4th quarter). Special trucks, similar to food trucks, will be used for delivering phones and modules to users. The mobility of the trucks will help to deliver the pilot to different localities and neighbourhoods within Puerto Rico.
11. How much will it cost?
The cheapest base version of the Ara phone is set to be priced at about $50-$100. Individual modules will vary in price from $10 to $300 or even higher, depending on module functionality. The phones and the modules will be packed into nicely looking kits. According to Jessica Beavers from Google ATAP marketing team, customers will be able to buy standard ready-to-go phone kits, or assemble their own unique device using modules they choose.
12. Who will manufacture the modules for Ara phone? Google or other companies?
According to Google ATAP, Google won’t develop and produce modules at all. The ATAP team only creates a prototype and standards/specifications for modular Ara phone. These standards are publicly available for everyone at Project Ara official website in Module Developers Kit (MDK). So, any company or individual engineers are able to download MDK and develop their own modules with any functionality.
13. Which companies are already developing modules?
Among confirmed companies there are Marvell and Nvidia (application processors), Toshiba (camera, display, activity measurement and other modules), Vestigen (health modules), Yezz (wide range of modules with different functionalities), InnoLux (display module), Phison in partnership with Kingston (data storage modules), Intersoft Eurasia (radiation sensor module), Sennheiser (audio modules).
14. How will the modules be distributed?
Google aims to make Project Ara a hardware analog of Android. ATAP group works to make mobile hardware ecosystem similar to the mobile applications ecosystem. For this purpose Google has partnered with two software companies Globant and Two Tasters, which develop Ara Marketplace. It is an e-commerce platform for connecting module developers and customers.
15. Are there any other modular phones except Project Ara?
Yes, there are two notable companies which design their own modular phones: Puzzlephone and Vsenn. Some time ago two other concepts appeared: Magic Cube by Xiaomi and Eco-Mobius by ZTE. However, there were no new info about these phones since then. Besides smartphones, modular smartwatch Blocks is being actively developed as well.