When it comes to smart phones, there are a limited number of choices available. Of course the first choice is essentially between iOS and Android, and from there you can make a few decisions based on memory capacity and screen size to fit your needs. Sure, there are some differences between processing chips and cameras, but you have to take the whole package instead of custom building a phone that meets your exact needs.
The modular phone seeks to change all of this, making phones completely customizable and easy to update. If you don’t know what a modular phone looks like, imagine a phone built out of Lego blocks where one block is the camera, one is the flash storage drive, another block is the battery, and so on. When you need larger storage or a longer-lasting battery, you can just swap one block out for another instead of replacing the entire phone. This was the vision behind Phonebloks, a Dutch startup that began in 2013 by imagining a phone that you never need to throw away. Much like you replace the parts on a car to keep it running, modular parts can be replaced from time to time.
Phonebloks stated from the beginning that they never intended to build a phone themselves, but instead was founded “with the purpose of encouraging the development and production of products that produce less electronic waste.” Industry leaders quickly agreed and Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) partnered with the Phonebloks team. After a few corporate shuffles, the ATAP team eventually landed with Google, where they continue to work on the concept known as Project Ara. Google notes that Project Ara isn’t really an official Nexus or Google product and only a development effort, although it will run on the Android operating system. A small market piloting of the phone is scheduled for some time in 2015.
An Ara phone begins with a rectangular frame with circuit boards called the Endoskeleton. The Endoskeleton is divided into rectangular ports that will accept different modules for phone elements such as the processor, camera, and more. The current prototype, called the Spiral 2, has eight interchangeable modules. The fact that they are interchangeable means that the camera doesn’t always have to go in block A and the processor doesn’t always need to reside in block B. Depending on your needs, you can put the camera anywhere you want within those eight blocks, even right in the middle of the back of the phone if you want.
Certain modules, such as the processor, will be fixed in place while the phone is on but others like removable USB storage and batteries can be interchanged at any time. Google claims that they are designing the battery modules to be hot swappable, allowing at least 30 seconds for you to remove one dying battery and replace it with another, all without turning off your phone. Owners will be able to customize their phone with the exact modules that they want. People who often use their phone for photos can use a higher quality camera lens, high resolution screen (the screen is a module itself), and larger storage to make room for all of those photos. If you’re only a part-time shutterbug, you can use a normal lens most of the time but pack a couple of different lenses for your vacation.
The interchangeability of the processor means that you’ll never need to replace your phone entirely when it reaches that inevitable slow crawl in two or three years in. As apps improve and demand more processing power, you’ll be able to keep up by simply adding the latest processor. Modules can be customized for certain occupations, as well. Doctors and paramedics might make use of modules designed to interpret vitals and other medical data, while retailers can add modules compatible with apps like Square to allow them to complete credit card transactions. For even further customization, Google is looking into 3D-printable module shells that will allow the end user to print out any image they want on the back of the phone.
Google isn’t sure what the final cost of a Project Ara phone will be, but estimates that it will take about $50 to $100 worth of hardware to build each phone. Now, that price range is only for the cost of materials. It’s difficult to say what the final cost of a user-ready Project Ara phone will be. That price will depend on manufacturing costs and deals with network providers. One concern about cost is that once you are done outfitting your phone with the modules you want the phone’s cost may very well be more than other non-customizable phones on the market. There’s also the concern that people looking to customize their phone might mismatch modules by say, pairing a high-end camera with a cheaper processor that can’t keep up. Google claims that they’re working on ways to minimize the chances of this happening.
So when will you be able to get your hands on a Project Ara phone? Well if you’re lucky—and live in Puerto Rico—maybe sometime in 2015. In January 2015, Google announced a market pilot in Puerto Rico to begin later in the year, selling the phones from mobile stores designed to look like food trucks, no less. The pilot program is aimed at allowing people to mix and match modules on the spot to see what works best for them. Paul Eremenko, head of Project Ara said that Puerto Rico is a great place to test the Project Ara phone because of the diversity of the territory’s phone users. Puerto Rico has plenty of smartphone users, but also plenty of people who still use so-called feature phones (aka dumb phones). Also, over three-fourths of internet access in Puerto Rico is done through mobile devices.
Will the Project Ara phone be the standard of the future? After the Puerto Rico pilot, Google will parse through the data and have a better idea of whether the public is ready for a modular phone like the Project Ara device.
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