Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Division announced its first developer event for Project Ara, a modular smarpthone, yesterday, and a new follow-up profile by TIME indicates we could see the device come to market by next year, with a $50 price tag to start. The key phrase there is “to start,” however, as this smartphone with swappable components could get a lot pricier, very quickly.
Are you ready to assemble your smartphone from individual parts? Google’s Project Ara wants to make that happen, and it’s just taken an important step forward with its own developer conference.
Ara is designed to offer consumers choice, with an open platform design that provides a basic chassis from Google with, the option to customize functionality using modular components sourced from third-party hardware developers. Users could buy sensors, additional storage, more battery capacity, better speakers and so on, slotting in and out components as needed. Including stupid ones, by the way: project lead and DARPA vet Paul Eremenko tells TIME an “incense burner” could be a module.
The first of three Project Ara conferences will take place April 15-16, according to the Ara site. It’ll actually be held online, letting developers from anywhere join, although Google will host a small in-person gathering at the Computer History Museum near its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Google wants to get the price point on the base Ara hardware to $50, but you wont’ get much in exchange for that – the only connectivity on board will be Wi-Fi at that price point. But the point is that users could build it up however they liked, rather than being stuck with whatever they got when they signed up. But that entails additional expense: Depending on what you want your phone to be able to do, it’s easy to see the price rising quickly.
When Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, it made sure to keep the company’s Advanced Technology And Products (ATAP) group, whose mission is aligned with other Google “moonshot” projects: to push technology forward by leaps and bounds, not increments.
This leads to a couple of different analogies about how this might work out in practice – it’s a little like a razor and blades setup, offering the potential for a continuing revenue stream from upgrade components. But it’s more akin to a freemium software model, since the modules aren’t expendable like razor blades, but rather optional add-ons that enhance the experience, but aren’t strictly necessary to it.
Project Ara is Google’s moonshot for the smartphone world: It aims to break the device down into its various components — camera, processor, storage, etc. — and let owners purchase them separately to upgrade or enhance their experience to their liking. As Google describes it, Ara will do for mobile hardware what Android did for mobile software.
Ara’s aim isn’t to upsell, however, or at least that doesn’t seem to be the intent of the Ara founding team. Instead, it wants to bring full-featured devices to the world’s next 5 billion potential smartphone users, without forcing them to swallow a huge price tag as well. Of course, this will definitely appeal to hobbyists as well, including the same kind of people who liked the Handspring Visor and its Springboard, but with modern smartphone styling that ATAP says will keep overall device depth down to less than 10mm, with 4mm deep modules.
The project is interesting and ambitious, even though it’s unclear if anyone really wants a modular smartphone. In any case, the (planned) price is right: Google wants to start by selling a stripped down phone, without even a cellular connection, for $50. While the device would perform only as a basic smartphone, adding more modules would enhance its abilities to meet its owner’s needs.
The TIME profile also sheds light on some of the fundamental mechanics of how Ara works. Modules are designed to slot in to each compartment on the basic chassis interchangeably, regardless of what each does. They’re also hot-swappable, so you don’t need to power down the phone to replace individual parts. Finally, the modules are secured to the device using hardware latches, which use magnets to lock stuff in place. That lock is released using an app of the phone, so that they won’t fall out when jostled or when the phone drops.
The coming conference will give developers a detailed overview of what Ara will be. Just before the event Google plans to release the Ara Module Development Kit. Although Google notes that it’ll give priority to in-person attendees, it’s not closing the doors on the conference — the company encourages both non-developers and enthusiasts to join via livestream.
Ara is definitely an amazing innovation, and a project that it would be amazing to see come to fruition. It’s also massively ambitious, and not every experimental tech Google develops ends up as a proper shipping project. Modularity has a lot to potentially offer the smartphone market (and could also be very interesting when applied to tablets) but there’s a lot of ground to cover between here and selling these things in stores. Still, if anyone has the resources and runway to make it happen, Google is a pretty good candidate.
Google plans to release the conference’s agenda in the next few weeks. No dates yet on the other two conferences, but Google says they’ll take place in 2014. In conjunction with the announcement, Google launched a @ProjectAra Twitter account.