Google’s Project Ara: the first 'Lego' phone toys around with grand ideas
You build it and design it yourself: some would call it the ‘Lego’ phone, others would prefer to refer to it by the name of the original ‘Phonebloks’ idea, but most would know it as simply Ara.
It all started with an idea - why throw our phones in the junk every two years or so, when we could just upgrade the components that we need? Thus, the ‘Phonebloks’ idea was conceived in the head of Dutch designer Dave Hekkens. However, up until recently, this was nothing more than a fancy idea that geeks could talk about.
Then, Google came and picked it up, and christened it ‘Project Ara’. The development of the world’s first modular phone actually began at Motorola, but after Google sold the company to Lenovo, it kept the research team to itself and now Ara is part of Google’s top-secret Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division.
Today, right after the first developer conference for Ara, we know that the 'Lego' phone is real and it’s indeed coming to market in less than a year. Here’s what it’s all about.
The Project Ara idea: accelerate innovation and accessibility of hardware
Before getting into the bits and bolts of Project Ara, let’s first see what the idea is and why it is worth your attention. With a modular ‘Lego’ phone like Ara you can choose every component of a smartphone instead of getting an assembled package that gives you no such choice. It’s up to you to select whether you want the latest and most powerful (and expensive) processor, or a cheaper but still decent one; whether you want a camera like no other, or no camera at all; a heart rate monitor on your phone or no heart monitor. Moreover, you can also customize the looks of each and every one of these pieces.
The idea goes even beyond that, though - it changes the whole business of making hardware. Instead of having to rely on Apple, Samsung or another company to assemble parts from component makers, you can just shop directly from the component manufacturers. Actually, in the plans for Ara is a marketplace (not unlike the Google Play store) for hardware - where you shop for parts: cameras, processors, memory, and so on.
The endoskeleton (endo)
Ara will launch in three sizes, with three different endos:
- mini (2x5 blocks) - minimum size: not wider than 45mm
- medium (3x6 blocks) - flagship sized, minimum size: not wider than 67.02mm
- large (4x7 blocks) - phablet sized, minimum size: not defined yet
You’d see that each endo comes with magnets that hold each of the pieces of Ara together. It’s surprising how easy it is to put modules in and out, and how it’s practically impossible for a module to fall off. Google is using a special types of magnets for that: electro-permanent magnets, a type that is passive (does not consume energy) when the connected module is there or when it’s disconnected, but that requires energy for the transition between that on and off state.
However, what we’re really excited about is the interface that is used for the modules to transfer data (talk to each other) and power. This connection comes courtesy of an open (as in not proprietary) protocol stack called MIPI, and in particular, the modern M-PHY protocol layer. It allows speeds of up to 10Gbps per connector, and for the 2x2 modules with two connectors - up to the whopping 20Gbps. We won’t go into much detail on M-PHY, but we’ll just say that it features many similarities to the PCI-E protocol, without the bulk of legacy support requirements.
Finally, the most impressive feature of endos might just turn out be their price - Ara has a price target of $15 for an endo. It’s important to note that while modules can be developed by practically anyone, third-party endo development is not permitted.
Modules: possibilities you’ll never have in a mainstream phone
You can freely change, swap and customize these little pieces that come in three sizes:
- 1x1 - 18mm x 18mm (0.7” x 0.7”)
- 2x1 - 40.5mm x 18mm (1.59” x 0.7”)
- 2x2 - 39.5mm x 41mm (1.55” x 1.61”)
Best of all, though, there are no ‘required’ components to build a phone with Ara. Sure, you need to have the basics, but you can have a phone without a camera, for instance, but with a few blocks for a humongous battery. Google actually plans on launching a ‘Grey Phone’ version of Ara with only the basics - a screen, low-end processor, battery and Wi-Fi modules, all running on Android, of course.
There’s enough excitement in such a configuration that could cost as low as $50, but what we’re really fascinated with are the possibilities that modules open up.
Google itself showed a heart rate monitor sensor module that some people might want to get, but developers are already working on other captivating ideas.
The Institute for Health Metrics’ senior engineer Peter Sisk has said he is working on an Ara module to analyze a drop of blood, turning Ara essentially in a blood lab on a chip. Imagine how doctors could travel with just their Ara phone to monitor patients in the far-away corners of our planet. Such functionality will probably never make it in a mainstream phone, but it’s possible with Ara.
Satellite communications firm Globalstar’s design engineer, Eric Blanchard, has said his company could manufacture a module that you can use when you go out of coverage. That module would connect to Globalstar satellites and allow users to make calls and access the Internet, something that currently requires an expensive and separate satellite phone.
Actually, Google has just announced a challenge for the best module design with a $100,000 prize fund, looking for the most novel, functional, elegant, impactful, and commercially plausible ideas, so we expect a lot of new module ideas to come in the near future.
Project Ara might be a solution to our battery problem
Even a module as common as a battery suddenly becomes very interesting in Project Ara.
You can have more than one battery in the Project Ara, and each unit could have it’s own charging port. This means that you can charge two modules at the same time, which in turn should translate into much faster recharging of batteries.
Not only this, we have not yet clarified that each endo ships with a very tiny built-in battery. It lasts for just a very short while, but it’s enough time for you to swap battery modules without having to even power off your phone. What this means is that once you start running out of juice, you can quickly swap battery modules, and not worry about your phone dying on you.
Open marketplace for modules: think Google Play for hardware, not App Store
The biggest idea of Ara, however, is that it could change hardware innovation from the ground up. Google plans to launch it with a marketplace where you can buy modules, much like you buy apps right now. It will be an open marketplace, similar to the Google Play store open model of submission rather than Apple App Store’s policed catalog.
For users, such a market might mean that no longer would you have to wait for Samsung to release the S5 with the latest Snapdragon chip - you’d be able to get that chip straight from Qualcomm.
It’s a win-win too: hardware makers can enter the business directly rather than going through phone manufacturers to get sales. Companies that were previously limited to selling products on smaller-scale markets, could now get open access to the huge phone market. For instance, an acoustics company could start making components directly for smartphones, an option it does not have with the current model.
Modules are the hardware analogue to appsSome say this could hurt carriers and phone makers, but it seems that first and foremost, this is a move to speed up the pace of innovation rather than hurt anybody.
Since modules all come with a removable shell on top of the circuitry, you can also easily customize that shell to your liking - with different colors, shapes, and so on. Third-party companies and accessory makers would certainly offer plentiful options, but with arrival of 3D printers, why not design and print one yourself?
Project Ara: release data and price
Project Ara has already gone halfway through its ambitious two-year mission.
There are still some concerns (most notably, about battery efficiency), and some rough edges to polish. However, under Google’s wing, Ara has skyrocketed from a mere concept to a very real prototype that is already in the hands of some developers.
Ara team leader and former DARPA engineer Paul Eremenko promised endos priced at just $15, and the most basic yet complete Grey Phone package should cost merely $50. At this price, it’s truly a phone for the 5 billion people not yet connected.
Ara, the first ‘Lego’ phone, is coming to market in January 2015. With Google’s promise to back it up and protect it from carriers and phone makers (who’d most definitely prefer to keep the status quo), this truly affordable device might just change our ideas of what a phone is in the future.
Google’s Project Ara: the first 'Lego' phone toys around with grand ideas
6. SleepingOz (unregistered)
Obviously, since it's from Google.
7. sgodsell (Posts: 1218; Member since: 16 Mar 2013)
Yes, and Android and the linux kernel have to change a lot. In order to allow adding and removing of modules on the fly. In fact every mobile OS today would have to change in order to work in a module fashion.
42. jroc74 (Posts: 4720; Member since: 30 Dec 2010)
If thats true...could mean a big Android update in the near future.
8. SleepingOz (unregistered)
Google is gonna revolutionize the mobile industry!
11. jaytai0106 (Posts: 1273; Member since: 30 Mar 2011)
I am very excited for it. Even though I may or may not get this phone, but this will challenge other manufacturers to look at their design different. Even just to have the ability to change the batteries or cameras like project Ara would be amazing. Never have to shut down your flagship device to change batteries, that's just awesome to think about.
13. Finalflash (Posts: 1724; Member since: 23 Jul 2013)
Imagine modularized multiple batteries. Like remove the camera module and replace it with an extra battery module for every day use. Then when going on vacation or somewhere interesting, swap in the camera module in place of the extra battery for the trip. For that matter, you could even swap portions with friends, if you are low on battery and they have an extra module on their phone, borrow that for a bit. There is just so much stuff possible with this, I really hope they make it work. Really respect Google for pushing forward with risky ideas like this and Glass while MS tries desperately to catch up and Apple tries to push things back to 2009.
15. jaytai0106 (Posts: 1273; Member since: 30 Mar 2011)
Oh yes, I have thought about all the possibilities :D I am excited for it. However, I will wait and see how everything works in real life when it release and decide if I want to get it or not. The thoughts or I can just upgrade few modules to keep up with the current spec is just pure awesomeness!!!!!! TAKE MY MONEY NOW GOOGLE AND WHOEVER IS GOING TO MAKE THE MODULES!!!!!
19. shuaibhere (Posts: 1428; Member since: 07 Jul 2012)
Man...you really opened my eye on possibility of Ara...
39. irbaaz (Posts: 44; Member since: 27 Mar 2014)
Don't lie him it will run on ios too :D :D :D
2. sgodsell (Posts: 1218; Member since: 16 Mar 2013)
I can see you never saw the livestream for project Ara. You wrote that phonebloks started it. Actually the people from phonebloks were at the project Ara conference. In fact Motorola was working on it before phonebloks announce to the world what they were doing, but Motorola was working on it behind the scenes, even before phonebloks.
10. Victor.H (Posts: 411; Member since: 27 May 2011)
At least, that's how we all learned about the idea - first from Phonebloks, and then via Motorola and Google. But yes, I have not seen the livestream, will definitely watch it!
12. jaytai0106 (Posts: 1273; Member since: 30 Mar 2011)
Don't want to burst your balls, but you wrote the article XD You need to be on the ball, man. :D
3. number29 (Posts: 185; Member since: 25 Jan 2013)
I lost interest when I read that it'd be running Android.
5. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5478; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)
What you thought it will be running?
65. iTechies (Posts: 81; Member since: 28 Dec 2013)
maybe he wants to run it with symbian. haha
9. SellPhones82 (Posts: 499; Member since: 11 Dec 2008)
What other open source OS did you think it would run? Apple and MS wouldn't allow their OS to be distributed this way. Plus that would add another cost to the device since you then need to pay for the OS. Unbuntu and FireFox might be options, but it might come more from the Dev community as a port.
I'm very interested to see how this pans out. Still have a lot of questions that need to be addressed before I'm sold on it.
16. SAO101789 (Posts: 123; Member since: 10 Feb 2014)
I wouldn't mind switching out OS if I get bored with one. Just like a Launcher cx
24. wolfsaviorzx (unregistered)
I think Microsoft will eventually allow it (they don't care as long as people buy office and skype lol) but glad Google is investing in this idea. I don't know if I'll get the first version but I might depending on how much of a performance loss and what the limit of the motherboard (hope they give tons of bandwith so it actually is upgradable).
45. jroc74 (Posts: 4720; Member since: 30 Dec 2010)
I can see this too seeing how Windows is on desktops.
I cant understand ppl dismissing MS being interested...they have always used different brands of phones...and their desktop OS is on multiple, multiple PC configurations...
26. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
Because Microsoft has this kind of innovation and Apple's iOS is flexible enough to handle the limitless customization that Project Ara offers? You sir make me laugh! LOL!
35. Zhephyr (Posts: 23; Member since: 24 Feb 2014)
its kinda weird to doubt or even think that it will not come with android or a modified android version.it may be a possibility but a really far fetched one.
It will come from google so google will use one of their own product in it.
and i think it wiser to use android for it is open like what this project will bring to more hardware manufacturer.Apple IOs ??Maybe ...Maybe not.
I am not an iphone hater or an android fanatic, i do own an ipad mini that i really love to use. :D
14. refillable (Posts: 631; Member since: 10 Mar 2014)
IMO the smaller one is not looking nice in my eyes, it's too thin! Do it at 3x5 and it'll look better in my eyes. Btw this is a good try from google bringing 'PC building'-like experience which I loved to the mobile world. We'll see how it goes!
17. kaikuheadhunterz (Posts: 712; Member since: 18 Jul 2013)
So if I get the $50 basic package, I can get a WiFi+Cellular module separately?
18. jaytai0106 (Posts: 1273; Member since: 30 Mar 2011)
I think $50 will only get you the endo and everything else you have to purchase :/
20. shuaibhere (Posts: 1428; Member since: 07 Jul 2012)
$50 will get you full smartphone package....
basic one though...
Endo will cost $15 only....
23. jaytai0106 (Posts: 1273; Member since: 30 Mar 2011)
My bad XD I read it wrong... Damn $50 for a basic phone? That's affordable for a lot of people. o.O For someone hasn't touch a smartphone before, that could be a good start. But the same time, if by now you haven't used a smartphone yet, it might be hard to even get the concept of changing your modules... (aka. old people)
38. TylerGrunter (Posts: 905; Member since: 16 Feb 2012)
Nearly right... Saddly the $50 doesn´t give you a full smartphone, just one with Wifi, but no cellular bands. Making it more of a minitablet.
21. Oğuzhan_77 (Posts: 26; Member since: 18 Nov 2013)
Modular smartphones change my ideas for smartphone. Modular smartphones incredible.
22. Sniggly (Posts: 6984; Member since: 05 Dec 2009)
I cannot overstate just how excited I am for Ara. It'll be interesting to see how Google gets carriers to accept Ara phones on their networks, though holy smokes, it would free customers from carrier liability. You would simply buy the network module from the carrier you want, and you could take the WHOLE PHONE WITH YOU, REGARDLESS OF THE NETWORK TECH.
Yeah, carriers are going to hate this. Maybe it'll serve as the catalyst to Google making its own cell network.
25. wolfsaviorzx (unregistered)
yeah that will be the best part. Verizon won't like it but they will either have to adapt or die.
28. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
LOL, you're absolutely correct, this phone does in fact change EVERYTHING. No more 2 year contracts and subsidized phones. User’s have the option to always have the latest and greatest tech, making all other phones obsolete before they even hit the market. Any custom feature on a branded phone can easily be incorporated into Ara phones. A module with multiple “Clicky” like buttons, infrared, FM radio, heart monitor, police scanner (LOL), 3D camera, Walkie talkie radio like functions, modules that add gaming controller to the phone, who knows…
46. Berzerk000 (Posts: 4004; Member since: 26 Jun 2011)
Verizon can't stop us then! This is the future, Verizon has to adapt towards it, even if it isn't in their best interest. And if they somehow mess it up, Google will come to the rescue with their own network.
47. jroc74 (Posts: 4720; Member since: 30 Dec 2010)
Yea...I havent been this excited in a phone in awhile.
Lots and lots of great ideas are coming out in the comments here....keep it up. have any of you signed up for the Aara app? I think its called dscout/ara. Its like a way for people to submit ideas, comments, critiques, ect about the project.
And its not limited to Android...I think there is an app on iOS too.
27. duartix (Posts: 55; Member since: 01 Apr 2014)
The REAL INTERESTING bit about this philosophy (which the article doesn't mention) is that you can grow your phone at will and on demand.
You could have several endos at home and use the medium for regular use, and then at the moment you decide go for a workout, you mount your device on the mini and go running for an hour with a just a small battery and display, then when you come home you might decide to watch a movie or do some browsing on the large one with a big display.
The capability to use two batteries and the ease at which you can switch between endos, can be absolutely decisive for this type of usage.
The REPAIRABILITY of the device is also something worth considering besides upgradability.
29. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
My single concern is will I only be able to purchase modules from Google Play? Or will there be other vendors/online retailers or in store shops at places like Best Buy. I would like the option to shop for modules from various outlets to see if deals/promotions can be used.
30. SellPhones82 (Posts: 499; Member since: 11 Dec 2008)
I thought I read somewhere that they were looking I to kiosks that would sell the modules. Really, I don't see why they couldn't be sold out of a vending machine. I'd rather be able to buy them in person and maybe have an option to trade in old ones for credit towards new modules.
32. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
OH! Trade ins, that's something I never even thought about, such a novel and green idea. Hopefully you’re correct, I hate having to wait for online orders.
I'm guessing Ara is replacing Nexus phone line? Will they be getting Android updates straight from Google? Cause that too would be freakin awesome.
37. SellPhones82 (Posts: 499; Member since: 11 Dec 2008)
It could replace the Nexus line at some point. There have been rumors that the Nexus line will end in 2015 and that lines up perfectly with Ara launching January of 2015. I know I'm going to have a hard time figuring out if I'm going to the the Nexus 6 (or whatever they end up calling it) later this year or hold off until Ara is available. I might hold off until they work out the kinks and have a plethora of mods to choose from.
43. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
I think I might end up getting an Ara right away, make it a cheap one and just play around with the device for a while… If I like it and see a lot of unique options from developers, I’ll pour a lot of money into it and replace my Moto X or X+1.
48. Berzerk000 (Posts: 4004; Member since: 26 Jun 2011)
Updates are kind of a grey area for Ara right now. Update qualifications would depend on what SoC and RAM modules you had. I guess they would post a statement saying, "This update is only available to Ara devices with X amount of RAM and Y SoC, or higher." Assuming all SoC options for Ara are linear with their naming like the Snapdragon series. But, the updates would come from Google.
31. zachattack (Posts: 565; Member since: 31 Jul 2013)
Seems really cool but... if you drop that phone, those modules are going all over the damn place so this won't come out for years
33. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
I have no experience with them, but videos I've seen and articles I've read indicate that the electro permanent magnets they use actually secure the modules in place.
34. Sniggly (Posts: 6984; Member since: 05 Dec 2009)
You know, I am so sick and tired of hearing people say that when they clearly haven't been paying attention. The modules are held in place by electromagnets that make it very difficult for them to pop out of place accidentally.
52. 777light777 (Posts: 53; Member since: 14 Aug 2013)
THIS...^ x OVER 9000!
They state that you can not even remove them with a finger! (while powered on)
40. mamadathu (Posts: 35; Member since: 01 Mar 2014)
modular phone is incredible but i think that oems never let this to see the light
41. CyberFalcon (Posts: 158; Member since: 17 Apr 2014)
I have a small doubt if this phone gets released will samsung, lg, htc and sony sell their display and other parts like camera module, speakers for this phone?
If so i could finally have my dream phone with Samsung/LG's Display, Sony's Camera Module, HTC's BoomSpeakers etc
44. Scott93274 (Posts: 885; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)
If they think they can make money off of it, they'll support it.
49. JayBEE (Posts: 17; Member since: 03 Apr 2014)
Ah yes, I'm going to need a physical keyboard module so I can create mein successor to the Nokia N900! *muhahaha*
50. Stuntman (Posts: 714; Member since: 01 Aug 2011)
I'm with you. My first smartphone was the Nokia N97. I love that landscape slider keyboard. I can actually type properly without using autocorrect.
51. checkmymike (Posts: 81; Member since: 28 Dec 2011)
This is what you call revolutionary.
More than slide to unlock.
Or round edges.
Or live tiles.
Google earned my respect for this. They are not just after the money. They are truly changing the world.
54. platformwars (Posts: 70; Member since: 14 Sep 2012)
This is Awesome... but will face alot of opposition from the OEMs and we might see a few of them dumping Android for other OS... like samsung working with tinzen. Why would i be lining up to buy a s5 or m8 or iphone6 if i have the option of just replacing a module which is obselete in my eyes.. if this becomes mainstream it will kill the mobile phone manufacturers and restrict them to being module manufacturers. However, i dont know about the adoption of this.. surely geeks like us would jump at this but the other 95% of the population might take time.. i think this is the only way ppl will buy cellphones 10 years from now.. Google is investing in the future..
I wish MS had a tablet/laptop thing like this.. that would be just awesome.. coz upgrading laptops is expensive and upgrading tablets is impossible.. this way i can have 8gbRAM,i7 2TB HDD all in a 8inch tablet.. that would be awesome as well..
55. tokuzumi (Posts: 273; Member since: 27 Aug 2009)
I'm interested to see how this plays out. I'd go for the best camera I could get, and the best screen. I would save a little coin on the processor side. Go with 1-2 levels down from the top-tier processor. Will still handle anything that comes its way, but won't cost as much. It will also make repairing your phone super easy. My only concern is software, and updates. Is Google going to update all these phones? And how will they determine when a phone can no longer receive updates? What if you upgrade the processor to a newer one, supported by the new version of Android, but your camera is old, and not supported? How the software side is handled is going to be the make-or-break of this venture.
56. ronn_eh (Posts: 4; Member since: 18 Dec 2013)
Phone- Bloks much
Wooow google, you stole an idea
57. Sniggly (Posts: 6984; Member since: 05 Dec 2009)
Wow, you don't know how to read. 1) Motorola was working on this for a year before Phonebloks was proposed. 2) They revealed this to the Phonebloks guy during their first meeting with him, and have collaborated with him and his followers since to refine the idea. He is fully involved, knows about, and has given his blessing to Project Ara.
58. thegodfather (Posts: 8; Member since: 27 Nov 2013)
I am truly excited for this day to comeand this is the future, the ultimate phone at the best price I have to be honest I hate Apple and I don't like their cult following Google the only company that makes their software that can run on all hardware glow and and high end with Kit Kat. This is amazing I recently switched to republic Wireless and I love it I love the Moto X and the $25 a month price the only way it could get better is this Google had their own WiFi service like Republic and with Ara that would be the greatest ever
59. thegodfather (Posts: 8; Member since: 27 Nov 2013)
I personally believe that the future has wifi calling and texting I think the age of cell phone towers may be coming to an end and also lowering the price of monthly service