It was on September 10, 2013, when Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Dave Hakkens uploaded his ”Phonebloks” video on YouTube. The idea was simple: replace phone parts that are either broken or in need of an upgrade. And you know what else happened on this day? It was also the time when Apple unveiled the iPhone 5S.
But now that all the hype has settled and new Apple phones were developed, let’s take a look at how Project Ara started, how much potential it had at the time, and exactly what happened to Project Ara now.
What is Project Ara?
Project Ara focuses on developing a modular smartphone device that lets you easily swap out components that are either broken or in need of an upgrade. It was originally headed by the ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects) team within Motorola Mobility LLC while it was a Google subsidiary.
The original project consists of hardware modules that, when combined together with the metal endoskeleton or frame, known as “endos”, make a working smartphone. It starts with the endos where you then add parts commonly found in today’s smartphones such as processor, battery, camera, displays, storage, speaker, and even more. We’ll cover this in detail in the next section.
The Potential of Project Ara
Project Ara is intended to revolutionize the mobile phone industry for good. So, instead of having to wait in line to get your hands on another mobile phone, you can just upgrade the part you need effortlessly.
Dave aims to produce a mobile phone that will last for a hundred years. But because electronic devices are not designed to last, implementing this idea comes just as close. This idea also means that there will be a huge reduction in electronic waste.
It works similarly to a GSM mobile phone where you take the SIM out, put it inside another GSM phone and go on with your day. Simply speaking, this lets you take whatever specs the module has along if you transfer it to another phone. In the case of a GSM phone, you also take the packages from your preferred ISP to another phone when you move the SIM over to another GSM mobile phone.
But remember that SIMs only work if there’s a signal, which is why choosing the right ISP for rural places is a must, like satellite internet. Ara modules, however, work the same across since it relies upon the endoskeleton or the frame.
Following its design, you can use more complicated and specialized modules other than the traditional camera and speaker, such as laser pointers, pico projectors, night vision sensors, game controller buttons, receipt printers, medical devices, and just about anything developers can come up with in the future.
There were also ideas for improved WiFi modules that could help ensure a stronger more reliable signal independent of which ISP you were using.
Dirt Cheap Price
Compared to today’s mobile phones that cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars, Google intended to sell a starter kit that will only cost you $50. This includes the endo, entry-level CPU, WiFi, battery, and the display.
Prices of the more common features of mobile phones such as the CPU, the battery, and other common mobile phone features like camera and storage vary depending on the brand and the capacity of the technology.
As long as hardware placement and versatility is concerned, there are slots both on the front and on the back of the endo. And as long as prices of these endos are concerned, it starts at around $15, and prices go up depending on the size, which, we’ll cover next.
Versatile Size Selection
Google planned Project Ara to have two sizes of endos or frames at first: the “mini” and the “medium” frame.
The “mini” frame is about the size of a Nokia 3310 while the “medium” frame is about the size of a Nexus 5. But somewhere in the future, Google did plan to have a “large” frame that’s as big as a Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
So, wherever you look at it, Project Ara promises nothing but revolutionary changes in the mobile phone industry. But it’s been 7 years now since it was initially introduced. Did the project succeed? What happened to Project Ara? Let’s talk about how it held up over the years.
What Happened to Project Ara?
Since Dave uploaded the Phonebloks video on YouTube, Google started developing and making necessary changes to the first prototype. And on October 29, 2013, Motorola publicly announced Project Ara and claimed they will be working collaboratively with Phonebloks.
The very first prototype of the Ara smartphone named “Spiral 1” was demonstrated at Google I/O in June of 2014. And considering it’s only been roughly 8 months since they all started working on the project, major flaws and problems were expected to show up.
The prototype Spiral 1 was kind of different from Dave’s initial idea as seen from the image below but the root of the concept was there.
Six months later in January 2015, Spiral 2 was released and is scheduled to be released in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico due to its large mobile phone market. But in August of the same year, Google announced that the Ara pilot in Puerto Rico is delayed indefinitely and will be released in “some locations” in the U.S. in 2016 instead.
In terms of specifications, it’s very similar to Spiral 1 but offers more customization and modules that come in just about any design and texture.
In Q3 of 2016, the development team unveiled the “Developer Edition” (see image below) and there are quite a few changes in the build from Spiral 2.
Instead of connecting all the parts such as CPU, storage, battery, and display to the module slots, the endo now comes with components such as antenna, display, sensor, and other system-on-chip (an integrated circuit that basically integrates all the components mentioned). But you’re still allowed to change secondary features or modules such as camera, microphones, batteries, and speakers.
At this point, Ara has made a long way since it started in 2014. In fact, there were more than 30 people who were using Ara phones at Google as their main device.
It was all going well that Google even performed a consumer launch of the Project Ara set in 2017. But unfortunately, Google confirmed on September 2, 2016, that they are shelving out the project to concentrate on their other hardware projects. No other comments or details made and we haven’t heard any possible relaunch since.
What Could Have Possibly Caused the Project to a Delay?
On paper, this brilliant idea could have revolutionized the mobile phone industry but things just weren’t coming together. And there are compelling reasons why.
Lack of Support
Project Ara was so brilliant that it would affect the entire mobile phone industry market. And because the idea of modularity is an attack against big mobile phone companies, big mobile phone companies did everything they could to keep the idea from ever coming out.
Lack of Technology
Project Ara has had a lot of problems over the years and one of the more obvious reasons why it was delayed was because the technology was not advanced enough.
But let’s face it: people buy mobile phones that lets them send text messages, watch videos, do Facebook– basically a mobile phone that’s got everything they need out of the box. And the idea of thinking how much RAM you need, what processor you need, or how much storage you need for your intended application just isn’t going to work for most users.
Hardware components such as CPU, graphics, and RAM are becoming more and more advanced each day. So, in order for developers to catch up, they have to always throw out software updates to support newer, faster, hardware technology while leaving older hardware tech behind.
And upgrading from time to time just makes this modular phone useless since you’ll end up having a need to upgrade all of the modules eventually.
Wrapping it Up…
Does this mean it’s finally over? I don’t think so. The potential it has is too good to just put to waste.
And even though Google did say they’re already shelving it out, it doesn’t mean that it’s gone for good. Plus, with the technology we have now, it’s likely we’ll see a more refined version of this sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time.