A modular smartphone is assembled from discrete parts, the so-called “modules”. The underpinning idea 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.
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.
What is Project Ara?
About the same time or a little earlier when Phonebloks was announced by Dave Hakkens, the concept of modular phone picked up steam and was 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) (recently Regina left Google to join Facebook). 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 the project dubbed Ara, developed by Google.
By now Ara is no longer an experimental part of ATAP, it has just become an independent division within Google. This points to real business potential and serious plans about this project. According to Wired, about 30 people at Google are already using Ara as their daily smartphone.
The previous version of the official website said: “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.”
How does Ara phone look like? How does it work?
Initially Ara phone was supposed to consist of an aluminum frame with the slots for modules, attached to the endo via electropermanent magnets. Modules, like display, receiver, microphone were supposed to be attached to the front of the endo. Other functional modules, like camera, processor, battery, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc. – to the rear side of the endo.
But now, after Google’s I/O 2016, the company announced that the screen, antennas, CPU, and battery are to be locked into the base frame. This change is based on several reasons. Integrating key components into the base frame of the phone leaves more room for other modules and saves a lot of design troubles. Also, according to the Ara team research, most people don’t care, or don’t even know which processor they have. Today, once the most smartphones have advanced specs, people don’t require more speed or memory, but more hardware functions.
A shape-shifting nitinol memory alloy will be used instead of electropermanent magnets (as planned earlier) to handle the modules in the corresponding slots. When a current passes, the connectors contract, and the connection becomes robust. Also, it can be controlled electronically with the help of software (special application or by saying “Okay Google, eject the camera”). Nitinol memory alloy connectors take less space inside the module, allowing developers more to work with.
What is the size of Ara phone?
Initially the Ara phone was supposed to have 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).
Now we know that dimentions will differ, but Google hasn’t finalized the exact specs, although it’s known that the screen size is 5.3 inches.
What are sizes and functionalities of the Ara modules?
Ara modules are standardized, meaning the user can plug any module into any slot where it fits. The frame contains six slots, and the modules have shape of 1×2 rectangles or 2×2 squares.
In the promo video, released by Google recently, we see a variety of modules:
– e-ink display for notifications or glanceable information;
– camera modules with different lenses and/or sensors;
– speaker and microphone arrays;
– a kickstand;
– programmable touch-sensitive module;
– nonfunctional “style” modules;
– fingerprint reader.
For sure, in future we will see many more modules with different functinalities and various features.
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. For now Google has no plans to expand their phone compatibility to Windows, Symbian or any other OS.
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 shutting the power. For example, it’s possible to slide out a camera and replace it with a battery whenever you need.
When will Ara phone be released?
A year and a half ago at Ara developers conference, Google announced that the Ara phone market pilot would be released in Puerto Rico at the end of 2015. Special trucks, similar to food trucks, would deliver phones and modules to users in different localities and neighbourhoods within Puerto Rico.
Now we know that plans have changed. After more than a year of silence Google revealed new schedule. Developer kits will be shipped during the 4th quarter of 2016. The first consumer-ready modular phones will be available in 2017, probably in different countries.
How much will it cost?
The latest info about the price was received pretty long time ago, over a year. A lot has changed since then. At the time it was announced that the cheapest base version of the Ara phone was set at about $50-$100. Individual modules would vary in price from $10 to $300 or even higher, depending on module functionality.
Now, with processor, RAM and memory included into the base frame, we estimate that the frame might be priced at $150-$250, the modules will still have a very broad price range.
Which companies are already developing modules?
Among previously confirmed companies are 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).
Some of them might drop out along the way, but by now we could see even more heavyweights, such as Panasonic, TDK, Wistron, E-Ink, Toshiba, Harman, Samsung, Sony Pictures, and some health companies.
How will the modules be distributed?
Google aims to make Project Ara a hardware analog of Android. Google works to make mobile hardware ecosystem similar to the mobile applications ecosystem. For this purpose Google will develop Ara Marketplace. It is an e-commerce platform for connecting module developers and customers.
To protect against counterfeits, Google will have its own certification program for Ara modules, and Ara phones will reject ones that don’t pass approval.