An overview of Project Ara, Google’s Lego-like smartphone

Overview of Project Ara: Lego-like smartphone

Google has launched several initiatives aimed at promoting open standards. Unlike key competitors such as Apple and Microsoft, which built their empires on propriety software and associated restrictions, the Internet search giant has championed openness and non-discriminatory rights. Its purchase of the Android operating system in 2005 is a testament to this commitment.

Currently, Google is working on a project that aims to develop an open hardware platform. Codenamed as Project Ara, the initiative centres on developing or creating a platform for modular smartphones.

What is a modular smartphone?

A modular smartphone is a consumer electronic device that functions as a mobile phone running under an operating system. However, unlike a standard smartphone, a modular smartphone is made of different removable modules—also called components or blocks.

Think of Lego bricks. A modular smartphone can be easily dismantled and reassembled. Each module has a specific feature or hardware functionality, thus allowing users to swap out a malfunctioning or outdated module for a newer one. This also means that instead of throwing the entire phone away, users can easily change parts making their devices adaptable to hardware innovations.

The introduction of modular phones in the market is purported to reduce electronic waste, lower repair costs, and increase usability through customisation.

An overview of Project Ara, Google’s Lego-like smartphone

Project Ara smartphones are composed of modules assembled into metal frames or so-called endoskeletons.

History of modular smartphone

Israel based mobile phone company Modu introduced the first modular device, the Modu phone, in 2007. The device allows users to customise its looks and features by inserting it into different phone enclosures called Modu jackets.

In February 2011, the company announced that it would cease operation after failing to raise enough capital for expansion and due to its debts and unpaid salaries owed to its employees.

Google acquired several patents from Modu in May 2011 for $4.9 million.

Dutch designer Dave Hakkens announced a modular phone concept called Phonebloks in September 2013. This is the first concept that garnered extensive media and public attention. In October 2013, Google/Motorola announced a partnership with Phonebloks that subsequently led to the launch of Project Ara.

As of today, Paul Eremeko heads the Project Ara. The entire initiative is under the Advanced Technology and Project division of Google.

Features and specifications of a modular smartphone

With the Project Ara, Google hopes to produce a platform for creating a modular smartphone. This means that Google will not manufacture the entire device and its modules, rather it would provide an open hardware standard to allow other manufacturer to design and produce innovative hardware modules.

Google will still produce the frame, also called as the endoskeleton or endo, for an Ara Smartphone. However, this is the only module that will come from the company. The frame acts as the switch to the on-device network linking all the modules together.

Depending on the attached module, the features and specifications of an Ara Smartphone will vary and the possibilities are almost limitless.

As mentioned in its official website: “With a modular platform, you can pick the camera you want for your phone rather than picking your phone for the camera. You could have a sensor to test if water is clean. You could have a battery that lasts for days. A really awesome speaker. A gamer phone. Or it could even be your car key. The possibilities are limitless.

“You can upgrade different parts of your phone when you need too. Replace a broken display. Save up for a high-end camera. Share a module with your family, or swap one with your friends. Now you don’t have to throw your phone away every few years.”

Other proposed modules that will give an Ara Smartphone specialised features and specifications include medical devices, receipt printers, laser pointers, pico projectors, and night vision sensors among others.

Through Project Ara, the goal of Google is to create a modular open hardware ecosystem that would rival mobile apps in terms of pacing and level of innovation.