Imagine Legos on steroids. Now make them into snap-together components of a revolutionary smartphone, and you’ve got a reasonable approximation of Google’s Project Ara. Mind you, this is no fantasy dev project with a long timeline — Google plans to have these smartphones available for retail sale as early as January 2015.
Ara’s roots are in a project called Phonebloks, the brainchild of a Dutch designer named Dave Hakkens. Hakkens was interested in cutting back on electronic waste by designing a modular phone with a longer lifespan. He launched Phonebloks as a strictly design project with a YouTube video in 2013. The video was viewed a million times in its first 24 hours online, and Phonebloks was up and running.
The project really took off when Motorola’s ATAP team signed on just a month after Hakkens first posted his YouTube video. This cutting-edge design and development team, you might recall, became part of the Googleverse back in 2011. And when Google sold Motorola to Levovo earlier this year, they kept the ATAP team — so Phonebloks has been affiliated with Google almost since its inception.
It sounds simple. Create a smartphone that’s built completely from snap-together modules, so you can build a fully customized phone that has everything you want and nothing you don’t want. And while execution has certainly been far from flawless (there’s a prototype, but it doesn’t work yet) the project is moving forward at breakneck speed.
Ideally, the modular design achieves a few objectives: it keeps smartphones from becoming obsolete, thereby cutting back on the rising tide of electronic waste threatening to drown us all. It also simplifies manufacture of smartphones, since companies are producing components instead of fully assembled phones. And finally, it makes smartphones a whole lot more affordable — because, once again, you’re just purchasing components rather than a complete phone.
Right now Google is providing hardware to developers interested in designing components for the Ara smartphone. There’s a $100,000 prize challenge for the developer who creates the most innovative working module. And according to ATAP lead Paul Eremenko, the team has deliberately set a short deadline to eliminate red tape and risk-avoiding tactics.
As of now, the plan is to start selling modular smartphones to consumers some time in 2015. The projected price? An incredible $50. And the Ara team is envisioning an online store similar to Google Play where consumers can buy components for their phones, at prices in the $15 – $30 range. Google plans to release the modular phone in a drab-looking gray model that’s supposed to encourage owners to start customizing them — and there are nearly endless possibilities, courtesy of a special 3D printing system for hardware and exoskeleton.
There are still a lot of challenges to overcome before the modular smartphone is a practical reality, with two big questions still looming over Project Ara: Will it work? And will people buy it? Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.