Google reveals 'Project Ara' modular smartphone effort

Just a few days after Google announced its plans for a 3D mapping smartphone prototype called "Project Tango", the company is at it again with another hardware research effort. This time, the idea is to make a smartphone with modular components that can easily be removed and replaced by the owner of the product.

It's called "Project Ara" and like the Tango prototype the effort is being developed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) research team, a holdover from the company's purchase of Motorola Mobility, ATAP will remain with Google when Motorola is sold off to Lenovo later this year.

Time's website has more information on Project Ara, which is designed specifically to expand the market to the 5 billion people around the world who don't yet have a smartphone. The idea is to sell a very basic phone for about $50 and then offer extras that can bought, quickly installed and used, such as a better camera, more processor power and more.

Google will design the frames that will be used to enclose the modules, which will come in three versions; one for a very basic smartphone, one for a mainstream device and a third for a large "phablet" product. Everything else, from the screen, to the processor to the battery, will be provided by the modules. They will be designed to be removed even while the phone is still running.

Google is planning to hold a Ara Developers Conference on April 15-16 where it will release the first version of its developers kit, allowing hardware creators to start making their own modules for the phone. Time says a working prototype of Project Ara will be completed by the ATAP team "within weeks" and the commercial launch of an Ara-based phone is targeted for the first quarter of 2015.

Source: Project Ara and Time | Images via Google

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I'm sorry, can someone explain to me "like I'm five" why people are eating this concept up? This is essentially selling a smartphone frame as the equivalent to a motherboard, which we all know is itself a component that becomes obsolete. All it takes is for a new component that needs a newer connection type and your frame is done. Who's to say smartphone hardware won't move too fast for this to be pointless?

I just don't get it. It's like everybody is ignoring the fact that the frame will get old, too.

Joshie said,
I'm sorry, can someone explain to me "like I'm five" why people are eating this concept up? This is essentially selling a smartphone frame as the equivalent to a motherboard, which we all know is itself a component that becomes obsolete. All it takes is for a new component that needs a newer connection type and your frame is done. Who's to say smartphone hardware won't move too fast for this to be pointless?

I just don't get it. It's like everybody is ignoring the fact that the frame will get old, too.

I don't think anyone is ignoring it. It's just that as with computers, there is often just one key thing you want to upgrade and you'd be happy for the next year or two. This will allow that. You may not be able to get the latest greatest parts for your frame 5 years later because of changes in interconnects but you will still probably be able to get a part that uses the old interconnect that is better than what you have.

I don't necessarily think most peoples interest lies with making their device last longer either. I think people want to customise their device to exactly how they want it. That is what I think brings the most interest to this device.

Then there's all the attachments that could be made for the phone that are too niche to put in a standard phone. A company could make a large speaker for those who like to listen to music out loud on their phone. Another could make a mini projector add on and they could all do this for a lot cheaper than it would be to make an entire phone.

tl;dr; People are eating it up because it looks like it will allow you to upgrade it like a PC, hopefully with less hassle and it will let you customise your phone to exactly how you want it. What's so hard to understand about that?

It's hard because it's being treated like it's the next big revolution in mobile hardware despite being compared (even as you just have) to something that's been reduced to niche hobbyism. More ready-made laptops are sold than customized, and who's going to bother with the cost of new components if the cost of a whole new phone isn't much different?

This is a bomb if anyone is expecting it to be a big deal. It's the side window and LED lighting of the smartphone world.

Joshie said,
It's hard because it's being treated like it's the next big revolution in mobile hardware despite being compared (even as you just have) to something that's been reduced to niche hobbyism. More ready-made laptops are sold than customized, and who's going to bother with the cost of new components if the cost of a whole new phone isn't much different?

This is a bomb if anyone is expecting it to be a big deal. It's the side window and LED lighting of the smartphone world.

Well it all depends on the execution, I think. If they can make it simple then the biggest reason why people don't build their own desktop PCs would be dealt with.

The technology that allows people to build their own computers also allows OEMs to build computers extremely cheaply, using a set of standard interconnects and off the shelf components. The problem is that its relatively complicated to build your own computer if you've never looked into it before, but with the phone it doesn't have to be if its executed right.

I'm still unsure how much of a big deal this will be but I'm glad you are so certain, y'know, despite not having seen the implementation.

If its done with a real sense of unifying parts and "blocks" then could be very cool and even become its own wee pseudo market.

Hell could even go on to tablets and steam machines, whilst keeping the desktop core idea of upgrading by part/block alive, which in turn may help to keep and improve some desktop sales.

Tho it could also go other way with consumers becoming confused and finding it a needless complication, or way to extra more £££.

Mind you im kind of the idea that it needs looked into, as how we saw and see in laptops and netbooks etc (nevermind tablets) due to large parts of the hardware being custom made or machined together with mithril so it can`t be tampered with.

Once the machine comes into some sort of thermal fault or breakage its done for, or needs serious expertise to fix. If a block or module goes, just replace it.

Same reason I dont see the desktop dying. Its far better for the environment and imho cheaper for the end user aswell as offering better choice.

Not to mention more usage aswell, as unlike that laptop/tablet/phone with a broken screen your stuck with, well just swap the screen block. No de-soldering mithril again

What's interesting is this idea rings true for laptops (and is easier to do since the components are larger there's not so much pressure on space), yet we don't see any 'moduar laptops' - I wonder why?

Keyword: Obsolescence. Why would an OEM make a laptop where you can buy a $200 graphics card/CPU upgrade to make a laptop last 10 years, when they can just force you to pay for a whole new laptop when you want to upgrade.

The same argument applies for a $500 smartphone, in fact moreso as people tend to upgrade their phones more often than their laptops? Yet here we are companies are trying to build modular phones so I'm not sure that's a valid argument against the modular laptop idea?

I always put it down to the sheer lack of space and forgiveness within a laptop. If you've ever pulled one fully apart, you'll see there's often very little room for things, and these days, most things are heavily optimised for the space they consume (Like ribbon cables specially moulded for their spaces, motherboards contoured around drives, etc.).

You don't have the space like a desktop to simply plonk anything in you like, and then there's the issue with heat. While it isn't a particularly major problem in a desktop with a huge open space, with a laptop that uses heat pipes and whatnot to spread the dissipation all over the joint, it is a major concern and not something that can be "simply plugged in".

When it comes to a modular phone, similar challenges come to mind. By allowing for the flexibility of interchangeable parts, you have to sacrifice a lot of space and design to accommodate these features. Something that can be slotted in needs slots, something that's manufactured a certain way does not, therefore it saves space and makes the device smaller.

How about we start with laptops (the right way) too? I have half a dozen laptops that I can't easily upgrade the GPU for...but hey, I'm just a caveman, you're world confuses me.

Jason Mok said,
it looks too technical for 5 billion people around the world that doesn't own a smartphone.

... have you ever heard of something called prototype? Did you think iPhone came out just to look like iPhone or something?

Jason Mok said,
it looks too technical for 5 billion people around the world that doesn't own a smartphone.

7 billion people in the world. 1 in 5 have a smart phone. 1, 400, 000, 000

Anyway, I doubt this will appeal for everyone and dont think it is meant as a replacement for current phones...just an option.

Edited by techbeck, Feb 27 2014, 5:02pm :

ThunderRiver said,

... have you ever heard of something called prototype? Did you think iPhone came out just to look like iPhone or something?

Modularity has always been an engineering concept. That was what I meant when i say technical. This will not appeal to everyone except for a market for those who technically understands it.

It's just like Desktop PC's today. Only a small subset of users will open it up, and upgrade/add a different components in it .. e.g graphic card.

Jason Mok said,

It's just like Desktop PC's today. Only a small subset of users will open it up, and upgrade/add a different components in it .. e.g graphic card.

Individuals, yes. They rarely upgrade their components and for those who dont, this is not the devices for them. But as far as computers go, many people take their systems to tech shops for upgrades if they dont/cannot do it themselves.

Jason Mok said,
it looks too technical for 5 billion people around the world that doesn't own a smartphone.

Just like ATX form factor is too difficult, which is why OEMs exist.

Think about it in that light for a moment.

Jason Mok said,

Modularity has always been an engineering concept. That was what I meant when i say technical. This will not appeal to everyone except for a market for those who technically understands it.

It's just like Desktop PC's today. Only a small subset of users will open it up, and upgrade/add a different components in it .. e.g graphic card.

Still how do you know what the final form of the product would end up looking like? I mean, it can still have a chance to be intuitive enough that people will get used to it.
The market isn't always stuck in time. If something brings significant benefits to their daily lives, the trend will take off, and that something will be accepted as a standard.

Would love to see one of these modular device ideas actually come to fruition. I think this is about to 20th one I've read about.

tanjiajun_34 said,
Not sure but I thought the creator of PhoneBloks is working together in the Project Ara as well. So does PhoneBloks still exist or is it replaced by Project Ara?

I think it will eventually be replaced by Ara since they are working closely with Google/Moto.

Crimson Rain said,
This is like the desktop of computers vs laptops. You do not move around with your desktop.

Like desktops, it is easy to upgrade a component. Want better graphics on your desktop? Put in a replacement card. Want better graphics on your laptop? Buy a new laptop.

Not seeing how this is stupid.

mrbester said,

Like desktops, it is easy to upgrade a component. Want better graphics on your desktop? Put in a replacement card. Want better graphics on your laptop? Buy a new laptop.

Not seeing how this is stupid.


It is a brilliant idea as long as your phone stays home. Oh wait...if I need a phone at home, I can just use some cordless or use the damn desktop.

Crimson Rain said,
Yes, and it is stupid.

This is like the desktop of computers vs laptops. You do not move around with your desktop.

Shh, let the grown ups talk now, yeah?

Crimson Rain said,

It is a brilliant idea as long as your phone stays home. Oh wait...if I need a phone at home, I can just use some cordless or use the damn desktop.

Why would it have to stay at home? The device pictured above doesn't look too big to keep in your pocket to me. Would you agree that it would remain a brilliant idea if they could keep it relatively small?

M4x1mus said,

Why would it have to stay at home? The device pictured above doesn't look too big to keep in your pocket to me. Would you agree that it would remain a brilliant idea if they could keep it relatively small?


Are you really that clueless?

As phones get thinner and lighter, most of the area is occupied by battery and even then, battery life of any smart phone is not enough for heavy usage. Start to taxing tasks, battery life goes down the drain. And you think shrinking that battery space and spending it for modularity is a good idea?

You can only have two:
1. Thin and light
2. Good battery
3. Modularity.

Only "die hard I have no job so I tinker with my phone all day" will want 3 AND (1 or 2).

Logic. Use it.