Project Ara: The Future Smartphone

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Nearly 3 years back, FoS featured an article on Project Ara, the modular device, which was part of Motorola’s vision of the future smartphone. Even before Google acquired Motorola Mobility (which is sold off to Lenovo soon a few months later), they already had an invested interest in Project Ara, which was initially known as Phonebloks.

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Google, Through and Through

A few days ago, Google presented a beta version of the Project Ara smartphone at the annual Google I/O conference. If you’re not familiar with Project Ara or what it entails, think Lego building bricks. This is what the project has in mind for the future of the smartphone. The last 3 years has seen a few failed concepts and demonstrations, but with the recent reveal, Google has finally managed to introduce a workable version, which will see a consumer release in 2017. Moreover, while the Nexus range is often branded as Google devices, these are often designed by the manufacturers themselves, like Samsung, HTC, LG and Huawei. Project Ara, on the other hand, will be designed by Google themselves, and while it may still be subcontracted to be built in Asia, it is Google’s first developed phone it will be releasing.

The Customisable Smartphone

It was always Google’s dream to build the modular phone, and finally they have something to show for their efforts and acquisitions leading up to the Google I/O demonstration. The project is run by Google’s ATAP division (Advanced Technologies and Products), along with many other wearables and future-tech. The phone will give consumers the opportunity to truly customise their smartphone experience by choosing additional components and accessories, such as a better camera, speaker, memory capacity, and added E-ink displays. But this is just the start. Google is already working with partners to introduce 3rd-party add-ons. Harman Audio has already been working on the dedicated speaker module, and will open the door for many others. Ideas for hardware components are endless, from speakers, to car keys, medical devices and breathalisers, these are all been looked at right now.

But, the device isn’t without its limitations. Originally, the project included the vision to have swappable parts such as the CPU, GPU, and Network radios all part of the modular approach, and resemble the building and choice options you find when building a desktop PC. But this is where the device and previous demonstrations ran into trouble. According to Google, their research and surveys suggested that most people didn’t know much about the CPU, radios and other core components, and focuses more on the external capabilities like the cameras and speakers. This has presented Google the opportunity to build a device that focuses on those aspects, while providing the core components of the “motherboard.” It would have been an ideal setup to include all components in the build, such that when newer radio technologies emerge, it would be easier to upgrade those. At the same time, it may make it easier to upgrade, buying only the core, while keeping all your components you’ve already purchased.

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How It Works

Initially, the intention was to have all components hot-swappable using magnets, while interfacing using wireless induction, but this has been revised due to many technical challenges, as well as also saving space in the process. Instead, the device will make use of pogo pins with an electronically actuated latch. The pins will be made of shape-shifting, nitinol memory alloy, which has dual functionality in that it allows some level of software control that enables ejection of the modules via the Android interface, and even suggesting the use of a command like “okay Google, eject the camera.” The added benefit with such a solution also allows for more secure modular device, but preventing the modules to be stolen from your phone without a means of a password or pin.

Google also specifies that there’ll be no gray market for such parts, thanks to each of the modules being coded within. This means that all 3rd-party modules will operate through Google, for selling and approving of said parts.

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The end result of Google’s Project Ara is that it opens up a whole new hardware ecosystem, not just for itself, but other manufacturers too by means of a partner platform. Google also suggests that in the future, the module economy could grow beyond just add-ons, but could allow companies to build their own frames, and not just limited to the smartphone form factor either.

While the limitations are clear for the current platform on Project Ara, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the end of the road in terms of future development, where one day Google will indeed be able to achieve a PC-like modular infrastructure.

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