Google’s Project Ara: the first 'Lego' phone toys around with grand ideas

There is a phone out there that is unlike any other.

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)

While Ara is all about changing separate modules as much as you like, there is one integral part that cannot be changed on Project Ara. Google calls it the endoskeleton (endo, for short) - the physical body that holds and connects all modules together.

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
Think of the endo as a modernized motherboard. It’s the bread and butter of Project Ara, and it's packed with impressive new technology.

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. Put simply, it takes no energy to hold a module, but when you try to disconnect one, the strength of the magnet shoots up by an order of magnitude to over 30 newtons, way more than you can overcome with your finger.

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

While endos are the heart of Project Ara, modules could be interpreted as the brain, eyes, and all the other parts of the ‘Lego’ 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”)
These are the sizes of modules you can put on the back of the phone, while up front, modules always span to the whole width of the phone. There are some limitations - you cannot put 1x1 modules on the large endo, and you cannot put 2x2 modules on the medium endo, while 1x2 modules will be universally available on all three endo sizes. There are also some new possibilities - modules can extend over the body - for instance, a pulse detector module could extend over the length of the phone, while a performance-oriented camera module could be thicker than other modules.

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.

Experimental modules

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.

Some 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.

reference: WSJ, TheVerge, Engadget



64. darkkjedii

Posts: 31798; Member since: Feb 05, 2011

I don't care how water resistant it's supposed to be, try as hard as possible to keep your phone outta water.

63. rallyguy

Posts: 620; Member since: Mar 13, 2012

My understanding is Ara was first but not known to the public. When the Phonebloks idea was released Google then disclosed that it had been working on the idea for awhile. I don't like how the author actually says Ara is a result of Phonebloks because it's incorrect. Google had been working on Ara in secret and only disclosed this information after Phonebloks was released. But it does look like a promising idea. It will probably take several generations to become popular to the general public.

62. awani1

Posts: 30; Member since: Sep 16, 2013

I laffed wen people say project ara is going to hurt phone manufacturer.. Im definitely getting this phone.. Bt some of us just like our smartphone components package in decent good looking exterior.. Dats y i gat htc one(2013) nd xperia z1.. Project ara is mind blowing but truth is there will always be an enormous ever growing market 4 already packaged phones.. Put 2002 components in a sleek body nd some people will pay anything(e.g my mum).. That's how apple got big.. Ara is jus going to b another part of the mobile industry not a total game change

61. moeapple

Posts: 1; Member since: Apr 18, 2014

when is the release date????

60. 1701nino unregistered

This is my next phone for sure.

59. thegodfather

Posts: 23; Member since: Nov 27, 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

58. thegodfather

Posts: 23; Member since: Nov 27, 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

56. ronn_eh

Posts: 4; Member since: Dec 18, 2013

Phone- Bloks much Wooow google, you stole an idea

57. Sniggly

Posts: 7305; Member since: Dec 05, 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.

55. tokuzumi

Posts: 2021; Member since: Aug 27, 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.

54. platformwars

Posts: 86; Member since: Sep 14, 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..

51. checkmymike

Posts: 224; Member since: Dec 28, 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.

49. JayBEE

Posts: 182; Member since: Apr 03, 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: 843; Member since: Aug 01, 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.

41. CyberFalcon

Posts: 223; Member since: Apr 17, 2014

HI Guys, 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: 6044; Member since: Aug 06, 2013

If they think they can make money off of it, they'll support it.

40. mamadathu

Posts: 48; Member since: Mar 01, 2014

modular phone is incredible but i think that oems never let this to see the light

31. zachattack

Posts: 621; Member since: Jul 31, 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: 6044; Member since: Aug 06, 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: 7305; Member since: Dec 05, 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: 63; Member since: Aug 14, 2013

THIS...^ x OVER 9000! (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ They state that you can not even remove them with a finger! (while powered on)

29. Scott93274

Posts: 6044; Member since: Aug 06, 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: 569; Member since: Dec 11, 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: 6044; Member since: Aug 06, 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: 569; Member since: Dec 11, 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: 6044; Member since: Aug 06, 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: 4275; Member since: Jun 26, 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.

27. duartix

Posts: 311; Member since: Apr 01, 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.

22. Sniggly

Posts: 7305; Member since: Dec 05, 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.

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