Remember the Project Ara modular smartphone Google was developing? In the last day of Google IO, it demonstrated the phone and announced it was on its way. A developer model is coming this fall, and a consumer model is due out sometime next year. Wired has an in-depth look at the phone, which reveals that about 30 people inside of Google’s Advanced Technology and Products division are currently using it as their regular phone.
The concept has had a few changes along the way, the most notable of which being that the phone technology aspect is now integral to the phone’s framework rather than being another module itself. It makes sense, though—if you’re getting a device that’s supposed to be a phone, you might as well build the phone aspect of it in and leave more room for optional modules to swap in and out. It does remove the ability to upgrade the phone by getting a new module, however.
There also doesn’t seem to be any sign of the replaceable front display that they’d discussed, so that you could replace the front screen with e-ink for better battery life on a long trip. At the moment, it seems to be all about the modules. Perhaps they decided it was best to keep things simple for the first outing, and replaceable components for the phone itself could wait for a future model. The modules it has are nonetheless impressive, however.
The phone has a 5.3” screen, which seems fairly standard for mid-sized phones these days, and demonstrated modules include different cameras, speakers, microphones, a miniature monochrome (e-ink?) display screen, a kickstand, and others (even some fairly ridiculous ones, such as a make-up compact and a pillbox). It would be entertaining if an e-reader app could use that display screen to show a thumbnail version of the cover of the e-book you’re reading on it.
I could see the device being useful for e-reading, too. While the switchable e-ink display may not yet have materialized, I could see websites such as Project Gutenberg, Archive.org, Wikipedia, etc. producing preloaded storage modules containing gigabytes of content that you can immediately access from your phone on plugging them in. And you wouldn’t even have to worry about them dangling off your phone, as a USB-OTG device would have to.
The Project Ara phone has six generic modular slots, any module will work any any slot, and they will be live-swappable. They link up via an open standard called Unipro which will carry 11.9 GB of data both ways. And to prevent damage from mechanical latch mishaps, the latching mechanisms for the ports are controlled by software—to the point where you can say, “OK Google Now, release the camera” and it’ll pop right out.
It’s worth noting that this will be the first Google-branded Android device actually made by Google itself, rather than by a licensee company. And as one of the first attempts in some time to come up with a truly new smartphone system, it’s certainly a worthy first device for Google to make. The question remains, though, whether it’s going to prove to be something consumers actually want, or just a silly toy that’s more gimmicky than useful.
If it does prove useful, though, a smartphone is just the beginning, because any device bigger than the modules could fit modules. An Ara tablet might be a thing—or who knows, maybe even an Ara e-reader. It will be interesting to see whether this comes to pass, or whether most people prefer to stick with plain-vanilla one-piece phones that are less customizable but also sleeker and less unwieldy. But personally, I hope the idea takes off, because I want one.