Project Ara: Will Modular Smartphones Go Mainstream?


If you want a cellphone today, you have to wait for Apple or Motorola or whomever to release the updated hardware. But, Google hopes to change that with a new project it’s calling “Project Ara.” It’s one of the first modular smartphones ever to be created and it could end up being a game-changer. The only question is: do people want to build their own phones?

Right now, no one’s clamoring for this feature, but they might – especially once they see the price tag. Google is promising that its exoskeleton will cost a mere $50. Now, to be fair, that doesn’t even include a monitor, just Wi-Fi and a backup battery. That’s it.

But, here’s the sweet part. You can build your phone any way you want. Want two cameras instead of one? You can have that. Want the option to have two batteries? You can have that too. In fact, you could have a presto-chango phone that changes based on where you are and what you plan on using it for.

If you’re going on vacation, for example, you could use a youtube video converter, and download some videos to take with you, while beefing up the video graphics and battery power so that you had enough juice to enjoy it. Just remember to respect intellectual property.

Or, if you use the phone mostly for work, you could focus more on modules that helped you get the job done. Let’s say you’re an engineer. You might want an advanced gyroscope or accelerometer so that you could use advanced measuring and designing applications on the job site.

If you’re a casual user, you might want the ability to have extra storage for pictures, games, or some other type of media. Kids could also benefit from the phone, customizing it (or, rather, their parents could customize it for them) so that they have only components that they might need, given their age.

Man Using Mobile Phone At Desk In Busy Creative Office

So, parents can satisfy a child’s “need” for a smartphone, while not blowing hard-earned dough on features like a duel camera that little tikes probably don’t need. Instead, parents could load the device up with a nice screen and a super-long battery-life, creating the ideal toy for long-distance trips. As the child gets older, the parent only needs to upgrade parts of the phone, instead of the entire thing. Teenagers get a better screen, and a cool camera for taking photos of their friends and, of course, “selfies” for Facebook.

The concept of a modular computer isn’t new. After all, all desktop PCs are essentially a module computer – you can take a screwdriver and disassemble one pretty easily. Computer nerds have been building their own computers for a very long time, customizing them just the way they wanted.

The difference here is that modular smartphones present a major engineering challenge. First, your average user isn’t a computer nerd. He’s a financial professional, or she’s a stay-at-home mom, or he’s a school teacher, or he’s a politician, or she’s a fitness instructor, or he’s a small restaurant owner.

The point is that the device has to be user-friendly (AKA passing the Jakob Nielson usability test).

The device also needs to be able to accommodate users’ wants while still retaining some kind of industry standard. You see, Google is opening this up to all-comers. Developers will create the modules that go into the phone, but there must be a way to standardize the connection ports and module sizes. Otherwise, the phone simply won’t be marketable.

Now, Google believes it has a solution for this. It will sell the exoskeleton of the phone, with pre-made module slots. A mini-sized phone will be the smallest. The medium phone will probably resemble an average-sized phone and will hold 10 connectors. The jumbo size will closely resemble a phablet-sized phone.

Also on the table is how to keep the phone light and thin enough for users’ tastes. We’ve all become accustomed to iPhone-like thinness. The good news is that Google’s new module phone would only be 9.7mm in thickness, which is only a 2.1mm difference from the iPhone’s 7.6mm.

Phones are one of the most integrated devices on the market today. Most manufacturers do allow users to access the batter compartment, with Apple being the outlier here, and getting flack for it. But, really, all manufacturers limit access to everything critical on the phone.

There’s a reason for that. It’s cheaper to build a phone as an integrated unit, rather than a disintegrated module device. Google will rely on 3rd party developers to bear the cost, so while the phone itself should technically cost more than a regular phone, it will hopefully be cheaper to the end-user if developers can figure out a way to minimize costs through mass production of their individual components.

If not, Google’s new device might die a slow, painful death as a result of a la carte syndrome – where users move to and then away from a device that requires more outlay over time than they would have had if they just bought the “done for you” solution of traditional modern phones.

Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP), which was acquired from Motorola, will hold a series of conferences in April to discuss the possibilities for modules for the Project Ara smartphones. No one, not even Google, really knows what to expect. The strength, or weakness, of this concept may just lie in the developers’ hands. If they don’t have a good showing here, it could end up on the junk heap of failed tech, like Nintendo’s Wii U. And, no one involved with the project wants that to happen – especially not Google.

Ryan Stewart has always had a knack for wires and motherboards. After years of tinkering and tracking tech trends, he often blogs about the innovations and ideas in the technology industry.