Mobiles & Tablets

Project Ara: The next step in smartphone tech

VISVAKSEN P | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 17, 2015


Will Google’s modular phone amount to more than the sum of its parts?

Android M was the announcement that got all the press at Google I/O 2015, the recent developers’ conference. However, on the second day of the event, Rafa Camargo, the new head of Project Ara, made a 2-minute presentation during the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) Keynote that demoed what could turn out to be the most significant evolution of the smartphone since the launch of the original iPhone.

Camargo debuted the first functional version of a Project Ara device, Google’s attempt at building a modular phone platform. An Ara smartphone consists of an endoskeleton, which is the structural frame and data interface to which Lego-like modules can be plugged in as required.

Each of these modules can be swapped out for other compatible modules, thus allowing users to upgrade or customize their smartphones over time. As Google puts it, “Why chose a phone for its camera when instead you can chose a camera for your phone.” The customizability comes at a cost. Ara devices will neither be as compact nor as powerful as regular smartphones due to the overhead inherent in a modular design.

Proposition for a revolution

However, these limitations are down to the nascent nature of the Ara experiment. A future version of the endoskeleton that could remain constant through successive generations of module upgrades is a tempting prospect given the swift technological obsolescence of today’s devices. But it remains to be seen whether consumers will abandon existing loyalties and sign up for a Google-sponsored smartphone revolution.

The iPhone set the standard for the first generation of smartphones – tightly integrated, unserviceable monoliths in which the brand was all-important. Ara has the potential to disrupt this equation by creating a faceless phone akin to the assembled PCs that are ubiquitous in India. It would allow users to custom-build phones suited to their needs and invalidate the need to junk a device because of one faulty or aging component.

Building an ecosystem

Google says the technology that will power Ara is ready and plans are in motion for a limited pilot program later this year. However, in order for Ara to be successful, it will need a range of compelling module options to be available at launch. Reception from potential manufacturers appears to be encouraging but end product is hard to gauge at this stage as some extremely fanciful concepts are being bandied about. Apart from standard fare like displays, cameras and batteries, the second Ara Developers’ Conference saw companies teasing potential modules such as lasers, metal detectors and breathalyzers.

While some of these concepts will never see the light of day, they represent the possibility of smartphone hardware becoming as simple to configure as software in the near future. Google’s grand vision appears to be to challenge the monopoly of the big smartphone makers by replicating the ‘app economy’ in the hardware arena. If all goes according to plan, the death of the smartphone as we know it is imminent. It will be reborn as Ara.

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Published on June 17, 2015
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