Project Ara Alive and Kicking: One Step Closer to You

Project Ara Alive and Kicking: One Step Closer to You

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What is Ara?

On the technical side, Ara (or Project Ara as it is officially referred to as) is an ambitious initiative undertaken by Google. The aim is to create an open hardware solution and modularizing aspects of a functional smartphone. The goals for the consumer is to allow them to create and truly personalize their own smartphone, and for module developers is to give the users this chance.

Smartphones are a commodity that cannot be broken down any further than their singular unit. If you want a smartphone with a specific camera sensor and camera capabilities, your options are limited to all existing smartphones with that specific camera sensor and capabilities. If you want a smartphone with a high quality speaker setup, your options are again limited to a handful of devices. But what if you want a phone with both: a specific camera sensor and a specific speaker setup? Finding the device that ticks both would very likely involve compromises on other aspects. And at the end, there is a good chance you would be left unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

Ara aims to change this. In its most basic form, Ara has become synonymous with modularity. It breaks down the single unit smartphone into smaller bits, called modules. This breakdown makes it much, much more easier to mix and match specific traits that you want in your smartphone. We are so accustomed to the current smartphone model of the “least of all evils”, that we end up settling and compromising our lesser priorities just to have the top few ticked.

For a lot of us, me included, Ara sounds too good to be true. The dream of a smartphone that is for you, changing itself to suit your need case in that moment, and doing so for all of your needs and moments, it’s too sweet to be realized. We’ve had our doubts on the viability of the project, since Google is known to encourage revolutionary products and ideologies, and drop them off down the line. Or even worse, let them die a slow and forgotten death, fading away slowly from the memory of all those who once cared.

We imagined something like this to have happened to Project Ara. After all, there wasn’t much update on the progress of Ara. Outside of tidbits of small info flowing out, nothing substantial was being revealed. For a platform that would need a strong third party infrastructure to summon mainstream consumer interest, the project was unusually silent on where in the development cycle it was. Was it still in the concept phase after being hit by a major roadblock? Or did it have its future made uncertain by Google? Or perhaps, it was very close to completion? All we knew was the testing in Puerto Rico was being re-routed and “recalculated”.

The Update

As it turns out, today’s update on Ara reveals that the next smartphone revolution has evolved from the whiteboard and is right around the corner.

Coming to us courtesy of Wired as well as an update on the Project Ara homepage, it turns out Ara is right around the corner. And coming to us quick. As quick as sometime in August-October of 2016, in the form of a Developer Edition device. The consumer edition is slated for a 2017 release. Yes, it is indeed happening.

So what’s the catch? It was too good to be true at its inception, and now it is on its way to become a mass reality. What changed? Or did they actually accomplish what they set out to, and are to deliver a truly modular product?

Wired’s David Pierce notes that around 30 people within Google ATAP are using Ara as their primary phone. He was even treated to a live demo of a hot swap of a module, with Ara’s Technical Project Lead Rafa Camargo changing the camera module on a switched on device and capturing a photo within seconds of popping in the module. The device in question was a prototype, rather than a proof of concept, and was in that phase of development where concerns usually revolve around the form of the final product instead of the functionality. Ara graduated from being an experimental part of ATAP to being its own division within Google.

The Catch: The Frame and the Modules

Here comes the catch, and you better brace yourself for it: in a bid to become reality, Ara is shedding part of its modularity. Instead of breaking down the unit smartphone into smaller modules, the “smart” of the smartphone was being broken down into smaller modules. What this meant that Ara is no longer a fully-modular affair — you can’t change the phone.

The Ara team researched and realized that “people don’t care about or want to think about” the nitty-gritty details of everything within the phone. A normal consumer does not take active decisions on everything within his phone as long as it works. This research evolved Ara from a completely modular frame to being a consolidated modular frame, transforming it from a point zero starting point to a phone that works but you can then customize.

Wired notes that the Ara Developer Edition that will ship later this year will be a 5.3″, “fairly high-end” smartphone, with smartphone functionalities working out of the box. The CPU, GPU, Memory, RAM, Display Size, Display Tech, Antennas, Sensors, Battery — you won’t be able to modify these parts of the phone. Instead, the added bits on top will be your playground.

The modules are standardized in their connection behavior, being built atop a proprietary port with an open standard, UniPro. There will be six slots for modules, and each module connector can do two-way data transfers of 11.9 Gbps while consuming little power. Removing an active module would require a software switch that opens up the hardware switch. This two-step approach instead of a purely hardware removal prevents mechanical accidents, failures and opens up the possibilities of password-protecting sensitive modules.

Where is the modularity?

With the phone now being fixed, modularity has moved on to becoming focused on the needs of the mainstream consumer. Things like better speakers, flashlight, panic buttons, e-ink secondary screens, fitness trackers, projectors, app-shortcut buttons, kickstands, pro-level cameras, microphones, and even modules like a compact makeup store, a pillbox and even all-form-no-function “style” modules — these are all on the cards. As long as the demand exists, supply will eventually come to be at the cost inversely proportional to the demand.

Modules


Project Ara has come a long way from where it started from. There a few perspectives from which you can view things from. One could argue that Ara is no longer truly modular — after all, certain aspects of it are fixed and constant. One could also argue that Ara has diluted its core philosophies in an attempt to be more consumer friendly. The dream of a truly modular phone was too good to be true, and Ara has broken down the big leap into smaller and more realistic hops. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our dream phone will not be built within six parts. But, one day, and it will be built and it will be real. And it will be truly ours. For now, we will be content with the lesser of all evils.

If you are interested in building for Ara, you can express your interest by filling the form over at the Ara homepage.

What are your thoughts on the new direction Project Ara has taken? Do you agree with the new approach? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!