A few days into January, 2015, when you finally shake off your New Year’s Eve hangover and get cracking on that resolution — for real this year — you’ll be using a miraculous new kind of mobile device that has redefined the entire smartphone concept. It will be cheap, durable and functional. Its modular design will be so customizable that — instead of having to buy a new phone — you’ll be able to upgrade individual pieces of miniaturized hardware the way you currently upgrade software by downloading apps. It will have a life expectancy three times longer than that of your current smartphone, it will come not from a factory, but a 3D printer, and its entry-level version will run you $50.
If Google’s ambitious Project Ara comes to fruition, that scenario will become a reality — not just for you, but for millions or even billions of people around the world. Hatched by Google’s division of mad scientists at Advanced Technology and Projects — or ATAP — Project Ara hopes to smash everything you know about smartphones into pieces — literally.
Think of Ara as a Lego phone. A bunch of individual little pieces interlock to form a single entity. If an individual Lego block breaks, that single Lego can be easily replaced without scrapping the whole, big Lego creation. When people buy a new smartphone, they generally keep it for two years before trading it in for a new one. During that two years, either the screen cracks or the battery dies or the processor becomes outdated or something happens to make your phone look, feel and operate like a Civil War musket instead of the machine gun you originally bought.
Google hopes that in the era of Ara — which is set for release in January, 2015 — your phone won’t be a phone, but a collection of individual, miniaturized components — or modules. A magnetic body — or endoskeleton — provides the housing for those modules. Modules are printed individually and can be bought and swapped when one fails without forcing the user to get a whole new phone. The ability to “hotswap” modules will let users exchange a spent battery — or essentially any other module — for a new one without shutting down or even resetting the phone.
Detractors claim that Project Ara will lead to a phone that is — among other things — ugly. But even if aesthetics are lacking on the next leap forward in mobile technology, it is a tradeoff worth risking if you weigh all that stands to be gained.
Open Source Development
Google wants to “do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: Create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines,” a project manager wrote when ATAP was still a division of Motorola.
An open-source approach to creating smartphones implies that consumers will be able to purchase modules from competing third-party developers and manufacturers. This gives the impression that the near future may lead to modules being sold in retail outlets, where customers can come in and have a module 3D printed to the appropriate specs on the spot.
Whether it’s Apple or Android, right now you customize and personalize your phone by changing your wallpaper, buying a zebra-pattern case and downloading that really original Sinatra ringtone. Project Ara envisions a world where your phone is truly yours.
Both endoskeletons and modules will come in three sizes and a mosaic of colors. But having the right size, right color phone is still just cosmetic. The choice of modules will give users complete control over their phone’s functionality. Cameras, batteries and storage units are all individual modules. Want a cheaper phone without a camera? Leave that module out. Looking for a phone with a super battery that seems to never die no matter what? You can do that, too.
Google wants Ara users to turn it into any phone they want. In doing so, they share a dream in which high-end technology will be available to potentially billions of people in the developing world who, until now, have been priced out of the smartphone market. The endoskeleton is likely to be priced at $15. Three sizes — mini, medium and large — will vary in price between $50 and $500. By allowing users to make minor repairs without getting a whole new phone — the way you do with your car — the phone is expected to stay with their buyers for up to six years — three times the lifespan of the average current smartphone.
It seems like a lifetime ago when, in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone and changed the way people would think of their phones. But the rotary phone, too, was once a groundbreaking marvel.
Ara is real. It’s in the hands of developers. Unlike previous incarnations of Google’s attempt at “game-changing” phones, Ara is not a variation of existing technology. An android operating system — granted, one that can handle Ara’s modular format — is the only link to today’s smartphones, which Ara could quickly render primitive. Google is banking not on the long-held cliche that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — it’s banking on the sum of the parts making the whole even greater.