With Project Ara, Google has set out to create a modular smartphone with low basic price that will give consumers the option of customizing all functionality through modular components.

Google modular smartphone promises fully customizable functionality


In autumn 2013, a Thunderclap crowdspeaking campaignattracted great consumer interest in a modular,‘Lego-like’ telephone – Phonebloks, whose video was viewed over 16 million times. Meanwhile in parallel Motorola announced its intention of creating a modular telephone. Although Google had sold Motorola Mobility to Lenovo for $2.91 billion, the company had not given up on its modular smartphone ambitions. Project Ara, as it is known, is an initiative whose aim is to create a smartphone with a basic chassis with compartments for switchable modules so that consumers can build the functionality they want into their own device.  South Carolina-based 3D-printing equipment manufacturer 3D Systems, recently acquired by Google, is tipped for a role in the project, using additive layer manufacturing to volume-produce enclosures and later other parts for Ara modules. Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, which is running theAra project, announced on 27 February via Google+ a series of three Ara Developers’ Conferences in the spring which will focus on the alpha release of the Ara Module Developers’ Kit (MDK). The MDK is a free and open platform specification and reference implementation that will contain everything needed to develop an Ara module.

Personalized smartphone using selected components

The Ara phone is designed to offer consumers choice, with an open platform design that provides a basic chassis from Google, with the option of customizing functionality using modular components sourced from third-party hardware developers. Users could buy sensors – based on NFC, Bluetooth et al – additional storage, extra battery capacity, higher-grade speakers and so on, slotting components in and out as needed. There could also be quirky, ‘fun’ modules – Project Ara head Paul Eremenko has mentioned an incense burner!  The overall design will enable modules to slot into the various compartments on the basic chassis interchangeably, regardless of what each does. They’re also ‘hot-swappable’, so you will not need to power-down the phone to switch parts at need, or at will.  Modules will be secured to the device using hardware latches, and magnets used to lock them in place. The locking mechanism is released via an app on the phone, so they will not fall out when jostled or if the phone hits the ground. Google hopes to launch the product at a base price of $50. At this price, only the WiFi connection will be available. Of course the more functionality the user acquires, the higher the final cost will mount.

Keeping the price down?

What is proving most controversial about this project is Google’s announcement of this very optimistic price, which is very low indeed when seen against the high cost of many smartphone components. However, given that Google plans to put its first modular phones on the market in 2015, the price of components could easily have fallen by then. Meanwhile the low cost of the base hardware, and the option of including only the modules and functionality the customer really wants could prove a hit in emerging markets.  For example, people in regions which have limited access to telephone networks could use an Internet network and an Ara phone with only the basic Wifi connection. Moreover, given that the various modules will be interchangeable, users will only have to replace a faulty module, rather than the entire phone, every one or two years and will be able to upgrade or change certain features when they wish to. This in turn will provide component manufacturers with a regular revenue stream. However, while many consumers have great expectations of having the option to personalize their smartphone, it will be the customizable features that bump up the overall price and meanwhile the new generations of smartphones will not fail to influence the aesthetics, ergonomics and weight of the customizable product. Ara expects to release its Smartphone prototype in early April this year, and is aiming for a market launch next year. 

By Manon Garnier