Google Project Ara (image 001)

Last October, Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, then a subsidiary of Google, announced an interesting partnership with PhoneBloks with the goal of creating highly modular smartphones that customers could build and update themselves much like LEGO bricks.

Basically a free, open hardware platform, Project Ara calls for a structural metal endoskeleton frame designed to hold a bunch of different items in place.

Swappable parts would include commonly used phone components like a display, keyboard, battery, electrical components, cameras and custom 3D-printed module enclosures. The audacious idea behind Project Ara is to allow folks to easily swap out malfunctioning modules or replace components with better parts as technology evolves.

Those who custom-build PCs will know what I’m talking about. It’s interesting that the 100 engineers strong ATAP group, led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan, was not included in Google’s sale of Motorola to Lenovo and instead got folded into Google’s Android team to work under the direction of Android’s new head, Sundar Pichai.

Today, Google posted a video providing a glimpse into the DIY smartphone project, ahead of the first Ara Development Conference which runs April 15-16 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California…

The electronics you see in the video below is very much work in progress, but it gives you a good idea of the scope of the project. The prototype development kit is comprised of an application processing board running Android, attached to a mobile screen.

“When we created this modular phone, we realized that electropermanent magnets would be able to keep it all together,” Google says. “And we realized we wouldn’t have to cover it.”

In other words, rather than use a chassis to house the parts, the components would lock into the skeleton using magnets.

They even created a standalone application to help people browse the swappable Ara parts to put them together and try them out in different phone configurations.

And this quote on some of the design ideas the team is pursuing:

We ended up deciding that embracing this block and modular aesthetic was part of the phone. Let’s not hide it or put it behind the cover.

Perhaps the best design statement we could make was that this phone can flow and adapt just as much as our lives flow and adapt. And that in itself  is an aesthetic.

The $15 frame, which is the only Ara component made by Google, will come in three sizes: an iPhone-like Mini with six parts, a 4.7-inch Medium and a nine-module Phablet, which is about a third larger than Medium. The back of the frame has a bunch of rectangular slots of various sizes.

You’ll insert your swappable phone component into a slot of the correct size, regardless of its function, and the electropermanent magnets will secure the part. Google is planning to sell third-party modules via its store. A $50 starter pack is said to include an aluminum phone frame, a screen, a battery and CPU and WiFi modules.

Google Project Ara (image 002)

It’s interesting that phone modules can be swapped without switching the phone off. And in a nod at power users who like to tinker with things, Ara phones will accept both official and unofficial modules.

In addition to the first Ara Development Conference on April 15-16, Google is planning to hold an additional two conferences focused on Ara Project later this year.

Google says Project Ara is intended for “hundreds of thousands” of small device vendors and developers who lack the scale and resources of big name phone vendors. And the search monster is putting its money where its mouth is: building a module for Ara won’t require a license or paying a fee.

Google Project Ara (image 003)

Ultimately, Project Ara should give birth  to a plethora of inexpensive, customizable phones. Whether or not there’s demand for phones with swappable parts remains to be seen. If anything, Project Ara could give build-to-order a whole new meaning.

Instead of the Buyer’s Remorse syndrome, shoppers will be encouraged to configure their devices at the time of purchase, knowing they could update the internals at a later date. Ultimately, you’d end with something like this:

Google Project Ara (image 005)

The approach would provide longer lifetime cycles for handsets.

Paul Eremenko, the DARPA alumnus who leads the effort, said:

The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?

Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big manufacturers that could participate in the hardware space.

Yes, Google dreams big – this is what they’re good at.

Google Project Ara (image 007)
A front view of an assembled Ara prototype.

First Ara kits should be released for public consumption in the first quarter of 2015.

Here are two more videos.

Another brainchild of the ATAP group: Project Tango, a prototype phone packed with advanced sensors and smart software allowing it to sense depth and geometry in order to map 3D environments.

You can follow Project Ara on Twitter and learn more at the official website.

Does this project make sense, do you think?

Will DIY smartphones ever catch on with the general public?

Image top of post via Time.

  • Keyan Fayaz

    Give it iOS and a jailbreak and I’m sold.

    • Jonathan

      I was thinking the same, but I didn’t post it. xD

      • Bernardo Drogemoller

        me too…..

    • Kash Gummaraju

      Really? That defeats the whole purpose of a true open source platform.

      • iOS has its open source part (kernel and core os), just like Android has its closed source part (all of google services and most of ui part)

      • Kash Gummaraju

        Really? Just how “open” source is this part? Would Apple even think of taking part in this pure open source(both software and hardware wise) project?

      • Bernardo Drogemoller

        they don’t have to actually…. at least they didn’t for the the OSX

      • What exactly is open source hardware? You can tear your computer apart, and see its circuit. That’s open source to me.

        In terms of software, Android isn’t much more open source than iOS. You can install XNU even Darwin on other phones. @winocm did it.

      • Google services and apps are not part of Android project. Android is completely open source platform and Google apps are never bundled with Android. Also it’s not mandatory to preload Google services/apps with OS. For example most of Chinese handsets (in China) do not have Google services and apps preloaded.

        You will have to obtain a license from Google to use Google services/apps on a phone.

      • On Android, only the AOSP part is open sourced. But most of its APIs are never updated since 1.5.

        New functions are added only in GMS, some enhanced version of the AOSP API can only be found in GMS.

        If you only adapt AOSP, you will have exactly the poor experience Android is known for. And most of apps won’t even work.

      • s0me

        These ppl only like what Apple does, you probably should look on other tech news site that is not biased.

    • Sleetui

      I think if a Dev did this in secrecy we might be able too :3

      Maybe even have option of choosing specific versions too.
      That’s it. Someone should do it.

    • G-HaB

      I wish but u really think apple would give a shit about phoneblocks

      • Sleetui

        Don’t need Apple’s approval just do it without them…
        Totally worth it and imagine running Emulators on it using a better GPU & CPU 😀

  • jocastro

    SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Jonathan

      Thanks.

      • jocastro

        hahahaha

  • ozonostudio

    I love the idea, but i don’t think use magnets is a great option, because if i drop my phone i’m going to ensamble everything again, or maybe a part can fall everywhere

    • jocastro

      im sure they already came up with a idea to stop that. lol

    • The instant you put a component inside a skeleton, a momentary electrical charge switches the magnets on or off…

      • ozonostudio

        short battery life i must say :P, and i know maybe they already think in all that, but what magnet of that size can be strong enough with less battery consumption can work?

      • Marnix Robyns

        did you watch the video? “i lost power” “you lost power but you don’t need power for it to hold” “that’s magic”

      • Antzboogie

        Wow damn. Thanks for the heads up I knew they locked in place somehow.

    • kaka

      It’s like a LEGO phone, But stepping on this wouldn’t hurt you, it’d hurt the phone, so turn the phrase, “Go get stepped on by a human” rather than “Go step on a LEGO”

    • Rickm_jr

      You could put a LifeProof or Otterbox case on it to hold it together and still protect it!

  • Jonathan

    In my opinion, that’s in the top 10 of the most amazing ideas ever.
    What’s the first? French fries.

    *sarcasm*
    But seriously, this is an awesome phone.

  • Ara Rezaee

    Project ME, I will sue!

  • CAS

    The problem with this, is android.

    • Dan

      for you maybe

      • CAS

        Android ecosystem is too fragmented right now, now imagine how fragmented it will be now that you will be able to change every part of the hardware. Android is android biggest enemy.

      • ✪ aidan harris ✪

        You’re thinking of this the wrong way. What is the single reason why most Android devices don’t receive updates? One of the biggest reasons is because of incompatible hardware or drivers so with this you just swap out the part that is incompatible with the latest Android with a new part and then you can easily update…

      • CAS

        I agree that it could make the upgrade process easier, but google has to aprove every single part that is on the market so it can receive an upgrade, imagine that every single manufacturer start building this parts, eventualy it can make the update process even slower, and lets face it, most people wont take the time to look how to upgrade, they just want a phone that works.

      • ✪ aidan harris ✪

        So just don’t choose Android as an OS. The best part of this project is that everything is open source. It should theoretically mean that if you don’t want to have to deal with the mess of Google approving every part for Android you could use an OS like Firefox OS or Ubuntu Mobile OS (or whatever it’s called – I forget)…

      • CAS

        I thought Ubuntu Mobile (I also forgot the name) and Firefox OS run over android, however, can you see non tech people using something like this?

      • ✪ aidan harris ✪

        I can see everyone using modular phones in the future especially people that don’t use smartphones or only have a cheap phone since parts (or in this case modules) are quite often cheaper than buying a new phone which means say for example a carrier decides to drop 3G in the future and become only a 4G / 5G (if and when 5G exists) network. In this case owners of a modular phone would just have to upgrade the radio unit (or whatever the technical term for that is) and they wouldn’t need an entire new phone and could continue living in the past until networks decide to change there network again prompting another upgrade of one module. It also means that if someone has a cheap modular phone and in the future decides they want a more beefier phone they only need to add a few modules and then they have a powerful smartphone. As for Firefox OS and Ubuntu they can be installed from Google Play but I think they can also be flashed somehow just as you’d flash an Android rom…

      • CAS

        I guess only time will tell 🙂

    • Kash Gummaraju

      The only problem with this, is people like you

      • CAS

        And your argument is…?

      • Kash Gummaraju

        You’re still stuck in the Gingerbread Era, have you seen how fast the OS updates are coming to android phones now? Android is key to this project, because it’s one of the largest open source platforms out there. If not Android(Google’s own OS) what would you have Project Ara use? Ubuntu? Wouldn’t work, because it lacks apps and number of devs? Firefox OS? Not that great, also lacks devs. Sailfish? Most people have never even heard of it. iOS? Are you joking me? The whole idea is so that everything is up to the user, not the seller or maker of the product.

      • Kash Gummaraju

        Android being open source entails “fragmentation”. OEM skins don’t affect app comptability, only screen size, display quality, and OS version. Same with how devs need to work with 3 screen sizes for iOS and at max 3 versions

      • CAS

        First of all, I own a Moto X with android 4.4, the kit kat update arrived 4 months after the release, second, I’m not saying android is bad, it has improved so much since gingerbread, still, being open source has been and advantage and a disanvantage, project Ara is ambicious, yet, the fact that it will run android only makes me think that it will eventualy face the same problem

      • grumpyfuzz

        Lol, in the U.S it arrived in 3 weeks…

      • CAS

        I know, mexican carriers don’t want to update the devices :-/

      • grumpyfuzz

        it honestly shouldnt take the carriers that long to approve it 😛

  • James Coulee

    I don’t see any module big enough for a decent battery: we just have to take a smartphone apart to see how much of it is the battery (and how this is a problem for such a modular architecture).

  • Dan

    Really interesting idea, I hope it works.

  • Chindavon

    Cool idea, but how will Carriers feel about this? Would eat into their endless phone upgrades/replacements, etc.

    • Agru

      F*ck carriers

      • Jake Rogers

        This

    • n0ahcruz3

      As usual they’re just going to jack up the price of their service. Data plans etc.

  • Atleast one company is busy working on building amazing things. I love how Google brought innovative ideas in last couple of year.

    • ✪ aidan harris ✪

      Motorola is not equal to Google. Google owns Motorola but it’s Motorola (not Google) that has been working on project Ara (at least this is my understanding from reading this article and watching the videos)…

      • grumpyfuzz

        Google sold off Motorola. The team working on Project Ara is staying with Google. Just FYI 😛

  • nonchalont

    Genius idea ….now only if they can make it look purty

  • Franklin Richards

    Can’t wait to see someone in the street drop this and just watch the phone fall into a dozen pieces. Fun doesn’t stop there, he/she now has to scramble and pick up the pieces before someone kicks it or steps on it.

    • Yes. If bunch of noobs like us can think about these problems, then lets hope they have at least one noob in their team along with professionals. Or they will be screwed.

    • ali_plus

      Look at the bright side. If you lose something, you only need to purchase that $15 part and you’re good to go. Better than sending for repairs and waiting days.

  • n0ahcruz3

    Interesting… I may have to buy one of these

  • n0ahcruz3

    While google innovating apple is busy retinizing and adding extra row of icons to their devices. 😛

  • Jae. Just J.

    This is sweet. Can build the phone we want. No licensing fees. Use unofficial parts. Why we jailbreak to customize to our hearts content. Worth just trying it out.

  • mike

    phonebloks had me like

  • Rowan09

    Nice concept but the phones are still going to be limited to the parts made, so I would just buy a phone already assemblied.

    • “but the phones are still going to be limited to the parts made”

      Duh, you gotta make it to use it…the difference is once made, no needto throw your phone away to get that spec bump. It’ll make all of these minor spec bumps phone makers (especially Apple) have been making obsolete…To go from iPhone 5 to 5s, I just replace the home-button module, the camera module and the processor module. To go from iPhone 4S to 5, I just replace the skeleton, screen and battery modules with a bigger one…

      • Rowan09

        Do you really believe these capitalist corporations will allow you to keep upgrading without a huge profit? Come on man, I build snap kits before and it can get very expensive, plus we’re talking about phones and in the US the telecoms will always make profit. I love the idea but to believe it will save you some money is wishful thinking.

      • “Do you really believe these capitalist corporations will allow you to keep upgrading without a huge profit”

        Not at all, but remember this is Google; they make their profit from ads, not hardware. Hence why this makes sense for them, not for Apple, Samsung, etc.

      • Rowan09

        I agree but Google isn’t really in the hardware making business, well at least with phones. I would love to see this idea become a reality just because I love build things though. The white phone in the picture doesn’t look too bad.

      • Bernardo Drogemoller

        Please keep in mind that it was Motorola that accepted Phoneblocks’ ‘challenge’, not Google, they only happened to buy Motorola.

      • I’m well aware of that, though, if they were in charge of it, they’ll probably charge significant amounts for licensing/upgrades in order to maintain profit..

  • Micaiah Martin

    So is this the phone that will put repair people out of business? Also what about durability? One drop and your phone would shatter like glass 😀

  • Eni

    i love the idea

  • Skoven

    Lego is awesome!
    (yeah, i’m a Dane) 🙂

  • DogeCoin

    The only problem here is Android, if i’m going to have a modular phone i want real linux, not the insecure joke called android. I want a boot loader as open as the hardware. I want sudo, SHH, apache, i want to be able to quadrupile boot it with puppy linux, ubuntu linux, TAILS linux , and Tinycore linux. I don’t want carriers F-ing with my hardware and drivers. If google is trying to do an android on the hardware, i don’t want faulty and semi locked down hardware.

  • blastingbigairs

    So where do you put the cold air intake and cat-back exhaust???

  • mav3rick

    …and cell phones are one of the biggest cause of today’s electronic waste.” Like iDevices with 512 RAM rendered unusable by the “upgrade” to the new iOS7 which takes over 80% of the memory after cold boot with no apps running and crashing apps and even phone on low memory resources. And just to be released iphone with 8GB storage…