Google is hosting a developer conference this week focused on its Project Ara modular smartphone. We've covered a few of the news stories, like when the phone is expected to hit the market, but then we realized that, perhaps, some people aren't familiar with what exactly Project Ara is. But you should be familiar with it, because Project Ara could potentially be one of the biggest things to happen in mobile since… well, forever.
The gist of the idea is this: with Project Ara, Google is aiming to create a modular smartphone that can be completely customized and with parts that can be swapped out at any time. It sounds like a daunting task, but that's why some of the best minds inside of Google — including some who worked for DARPA — are working on it.
The team has set their own deadlines to make sure that a real, tangible product comes to fruition, something that you and I may be able to buy and hold in our hands as soon as next year. Enough with the teasing, though, we're here to explain exactly what Project Ara is, what the heck the benefits of a "modular smartphone" might be (and what one even is) and how it may let you create the smartphone of your dreams all from your couch.
Let's take a dive now into Project Ara, who's working on it, when you can expect to see a real and final product, and more. Hopefully by the end, you'll have a much better understanding of what Google is trying to achieve, and why it really does matter.
Where did Project Ara come from?
Project Ara is a special initiative inside Google that's aimed at creating a modular smartphone. The idea was originally crafted by a man named Dave Hakkens, who created a site called Phonebloks in 2013 that basically called on the Internet to support the idea of a modular smartphone – one that allows you to customize and/or swap out specific components during the phone's lifecycle. The Phonebloks idea is incredibly successful and to-date has 21,313,422 YouTube views and more than 979,000 supporters.
Motorola Mobility took note of the project and eventually tapped Hakkens to come help build it. When Google agreed to sell Motorola Mobility, it held on to Project Ara, which is now part of its Advanced Technology and Projects division (ATAP), a self-described "band of pirates, believers and makers."
What's the goal?
The goal of Project Ara is very much based on the Phonebloks idea of creating a modular smartphone. Consumers will ultimately be able to buy what the team is referring to as a "Grey Phone" – or a body, and then add in the parts they see fit. You might want an 8-megapixel camera, a mid-range processor and an 1900mAh battery to keep costs down, for example. But your best friend might prefer to spend a bit more, and might want to choose a 16-megapixel camera module, a super fast high-end processor module and a massive battery.
In a few months, you might decide that you like your friend's camera, and so you head to Google's store and buy a new camera module instead of replacing your entire smartphone. Simply pop out our old camera, which is held in place with electromagnetics, and then pop in a new one. In a year, you decide to buy a new processor, but all along you're still keeping the same body.
The goal, according to Project Ara, is to provide phones that last up to six years, instead of devices that are quickly outdated. At the start, Google will sell mini, medium and large size bodies.
Also, because they're modular, Google hopes to create super low-cost devices that can be sold to the 5 billion people around the world who don't yet have a smartphone. A consumer could potentially just buy a body with a processor, a small battery and just enough storage to get started.
The end goal is to create Grey Phones that cost just $50 to produce, so the end product shouldn't cost much more – and would potentially allow Google to sell devices that cost less than even the Moto G – and that can be upgraded at any time.
Who works on Project Ara?
Google's Advanced Technology and Projects division is headed by Regina Dugan, who was once the director of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Under her is Paul Eremenko, who specifically oversees the development and progress of Project Ara, he previously served as the deputy director in the tactical technology office at DARPA, after serving as a program manager, and holds degrees from MIT, Caltech and Georgetown. Now, though, they work inside Google on some of the company's most aggressive "moonshot" projects.
In other words, Project Ara is spearheaded by some of the brightest minds on the planet, and some of the people best suited for creating new and groundbreaking technologies. Project Ara, and others that ATAP work on, might be called moonshots, but these are people who excel under pressure to invent and innovate.
When Will Project Ara Launch?
The team behind Project Ara recently said that the goal is to get the first model on the market by January 2015, just nine months from now.
The team needs to get all of its partners on board to start making the individual parts, however, and that could take time depending on who decides to manufacture individual modules and sell them through Google's Store. The idea, at least right now, is that customers will be able to visit a Google website to purchase and customize a phone, or to buy individual modules for upgrades.
The cost will vary depending on what components you choose, but as we said earlier Google expects it will cost $50 to produce the smallest, entry-level shell.
Right now, according to a story from The Verge, one issue is power management – the individual parts consume more power than a system-on-a-chip solution, for example. Google said it's working to alleviate that by providing higher-power batteries that have fewer charge cycles – a trade off for sure, but not a huge deal considering you can just swap in a new battery later.
Also, as we talked about on today's podcast, consumers who want unique form factors may not be drawn to Project Ara – which will have just three sets. Google will help to alleviate this by creating and selling custom 3D Printed shells – but that's just going to change the look, not the form, of its smartphones. Also, Android doesn't support modular smartphones yet, but the goal is to solve that problem before launch.
Project Ara, as you may have surmised by now, has a ton of potential. It may soon provide smartphones to people who don't have them. It may let us pick the display size we want, the memory we want and the battery we need — instead of forcing us to pay for components we might not otherwise ever use.
That may completely turn the industry on its head, especially if you consider how a compeletly custom business model will affect other phone makers. Think about the potential for further innovation, too: a guy in his garage could potentially build a first-class camera module and sell it direct to consumers — and at a lower cost than a major OEM might.
Project Ara may soon change the way we all think about smartphones – or even electronics in general, and that's why it matters.
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