Project ARA

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Smartphones have become a fundamental part of our lives, and even Jon Snow knows that. They have come a long way from their simple call-only functionality - Clicking pictures, music playback, watching videos, and playing arcade games are just some of their popular uses. Not only have these features superseded many mainstream devices such as portable music players and point-and-shoot cameras; but they have also restricted our usage of personal computers by providing a decent and smooth Internet browsing experience. Furthermore, with the ability to access the Internet, smartphones can now perform a host of functions; from booking film tickets and calling a cab to mobile banking and what not.

However, if you would ask smartphone owners whether they are satisfied with their devices; nine times out of ten you’ll get an emphatic “No!” in response. Most users have complaints: Pitiable camera results, insufficient battery back-up, or inadequate speakers, to name a few. But this shouldn’t come across as a surprise. The unbelievably large diversity among consumers in terms of requirements, daily activities, likes and dislikes, etc. is to be held responsible. Consequently, there is no perfect device for every single consumer out there. People buy the smartphone which they deem most suited to their lifestyle; because the one perfect for them doesn’t exist. Even then, there's always the issue of deciding how frequently one should upgrade to a new, more technologically advanced smartphone; given the fact that better models are released every year like clock-work.

So if you look at things how someone like Henry Ford would have, people don't need a faster horse, they need a new mode of transportation - That is, consumers don't need a better smartphone; instead, they need the one which can be customised repeatedly to suit their varying requirements.

Enter Project Ara: Google's vision for making truly customisable smartphones. A smartphone which, barring a few basic features such as the processor, memory, Wi-Fi antenna and primary screen; could be built to have exactly those features which are desired by the consumer. Not just that, it could be modified time and again to suit subsequent requirements of the user.

If there's one thing that we know for sure about the current smartphone market, it's that there's no such thing as ‘One device, Suits all’. However, having a device with bits that we can swap out and replace definitely takes us one step closer to that goal. Project Ara could conceivably become the next best thing, enabling us to effectively build a phone which would largely meet our specifications and requirements.

What is Project Ara?

'Project Ara' is the codename for an unnamed, upcoming modular Android smartphone that consists of a central module board in the form of a base frame (called 'endoskeleton', or 'endo' for short), with slots for individual modules to be connected on the back. The modules are similar to small tile pieces, and provide functionalities such as a secondary display, camera or an extra battery; and which can be attached as per the user's discretion. The project was originally headed by the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team within Motorola Mobility while it was a subsidiary of Google. Google had retained the ATAP group during its sale of Motorola to Lenovo in 2014; and placed it under the division responsible for Android and Chrome, which was at the time headed by then Senior Vice President (and the present CEO) Sundar Pichai. The project has since been separated from ATAP and is presently an independent division within Google - A clear indication that the tech giant believes its venture would be going places.

With such a high degree of customisability, Google hopes to reach more of the billions of people in the world who don't own a smartphone yet. Simultaneously, it aims to create a new hardware ecosystem wherein anyone can build a module for the smartphone. While Google would be the sole approver and retailer of these modules, the absence of any licensing or royalty fee would level the playing field for small time hardware manufacturers to take on the handful of major smartphone manufacturers. This will eventually transform the hardware ecosystem of smartphones into something analogous to the Google Play software ecosystem; where the performance and quality of the products will trump the scale of big time manufacturers, and it would be the end consumer who calls the shots.

As it turns out, the company has been hard at work to release a device; and is thus frequently revising many aspects of the Project to find the most viable combination of features for it. The company discussed its progress at Google I/O conference in May 2016, apprising the world about the fact that it is remarkably close to completion.

How does Project Ara work?

The current Project Ara device consists of the 'endo', with some basic functionalities such as a primary screen, memory, processor, sensors, Wi-Fi antenna and a tiny battery; and with slots on the back for attaching modules. This makes the 'endo' a very basic phone on its own; having exposed slots to hold modules on the back.

The connectors of the modules use a shape-shifting 'nitinol memory alloy' which contracts when current is passed through it, locking the modules into position. Thus, in the event of a fall, the connectors would firmly hold onto the modules despite the impact; provided it drops from a reasonable height and not from an airplane over 30,000 ft in the air!

A user can attach up to six plug-and-play components. Cameras, secondary displays, speakers and many more hardware can all be added as modules, creating a scope for more varied applications. There will be smaller and larger frames in the future based on the cost and use. Ultimately, you’ll be able to find just the right module that suits your needs, and doesn’t turn heavy on your pocket.

The Modules

Although the core internals won't be interchangeable, Project Ara will still allow a number of key hardware modules to be removable. You'll be able to choose from different camera modules, add on multiple loudspeakers, expandable storage and even snap on a more powerful battery. The most important feature of the modules is that they're ‘hot-swappable’. That means you'll be able to remove them, and swap in new ones without having to reboot the phone; much like flash drives into the computers.

The company has created an app, called the 'Ara Manager App', which will provide users with detailed information on all the modules currently attached to their device; and also the option to unlock modules, so that they can be slid out and have another one connected instead. One could also eject them using voice commands.

Modules Modules

All of these modules run and communicate seamlessly, thanks to a new piece of software in the Android stack called Greybus; which according to Google,"supports instantaneous connections, power efficiency and data-transfer rates of up to 11.9 Gbps".

As for the physical construction, Project Ara has progressed from a loose magnetised approach (which reportedly didn't prove tough enough in early tests) to a system of durable latches and connectors. In fact, Google says that the connectors are capable of lasting 10,000 swap-out/in cycles without dying. The modules themselves connect through the open UniPro standard.

Google is teaming up with a number of hardware partners to produce these modules, including Panasonic, TDK, iHealth, E-Ink, Toshiba, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Samsung. All of them will build their own disparate modules to Google's common set standards, which means you'll be able to upgrade components over the subsequent years. Let’s look at some common modules specifications:

Camera

One of the modules with the most potential for personalisation is the camera. The recently launched promotional video by Google exhibits a smartphone without a camera module. So if you're an avid photographer who always keeps a dedicated camera handy, you needn't waste space or money on a camera module. Further, if you require a high resolution camera and you don’t have one, all you need to do is just replace one of the modules on the device with a camera module.

Secondary Screen

Their is a small square screen that can be slotted onto the back of the Project Ara device - Possibly utilising low-energy, high-visibility e-ink display technology. This would fulfill the need for a small display to check the phone minor notifications, such as time or temperature.

Kickstand

From the high-tech to the decidedly low-tech, the Google video shows off a kickstand module that will be handy for those who like to prop their phones up for media consumption, or just a group selfie.

Speakers

One of the most visually (and audibly) striking modules is the small loudspeaker unit, which occupies one of the rectangular slots on the frame. As Google exhibits, the final image is of an Ara device with a couple of larger speaker modules attached alongside one of those smaller ones. Presumably the idea is that the phone can act as some sort of portable public media player.

The Cost

Back at the beginning of 2015, Google was aiming for the cost price of a basic, entry-level model to be in the range of 3.5k to 7k rupees. Meanwhile, the modules were to cost along similar lines; according to earlier statements made by hardware partner Toshiba. However, as the company is frequently making changes to the Project, these costs are estimates at best.

Applications and Future Aspects

If Ara becomes just as popular as the present mainstream smartphones, it would disrupt the entire 'Smartphone Ecosystem' as we know it. Tech companies will have to re-think the way they manufacture and market their devices. Instead of advertising minor upgrades about once a year, they would have to put more emphasis on improving the core components in the 'endo' frame which can't be changed/upgraded by the users. That future looks more like the world of Windows PCs, which can be built with any number of mixed-and-matched components.

But that’s a very large if. It’s unclear whether the average buyer is interested in this type of device. Every fall, shoppers line up outside Apple stores to snag the latest iPhone, which also happens to be the least customisable smartphone you can buy. For any given iPhone iteration, all you get to choose is between two physical sizes, three storage sizes, and a small handful of color options. While some Android phones allow owners to swap out the battery or add extra storage space, Apple doesn’t allow any such tweaks. Consumers might embrace a new cornucopia of smartphone component options or they might balk at an overly confusing list of possibilities. How they react to the concept will have a major influence on the phones of the future.

The 'endo' base frames are expected to have a life of five to six years – Far longer than the current smartphones. Instead of upgrading one's phones every two years, one could save up for the latest modules. The intende goal is that when a better processor or camera comes out in the market, it will be available as a module for the Ara smartphone owners to purchase. Furthermore, if any of your existing modules gets damaged; it could be easily replaced by a new one without much hassles.

Ara is not limited to only entertainment purposes. It proposes endless possibilities when it comes to development. Owing to the significant ease in the sale of modules, there will be an explosion in both the quality and variety of functionalities which a smartphone offers. Hardware manufacturers who have never associated with smart-phone industry will now manufacture modules for these phones. It wouldn't be surprising if in the future you have speaker modules manufactured by Beats, camera modules by Nikon or Cannon, or even a portable reading light by Philips. Medical modules, such as glucose meters for diabetic individuals and water-potability checkers are also on the cards.

The biggest advantage and a challenge at the same time for project Ara is that it is future proof. It is exceptionally flexible and adaptable to the technological developments of the future. It will transform into any fancy gadget you like. However, there are possibilities that it will bring a steep fall in the smartphone market turnovers. If successful, Ara will establish Google’s autonomy over the smartphone markets; and history stands witness to the fact that such an absolute autonomy is never in the best interest of the end consumer.

But at the same time, Ara has the power to transfigure the ways the world has been following till now for its computational needs. Ara is advancing to create a ‘truly modular computing platform’, and it will implement re-usability in the best possible way; providing a highly efficient solution to the problem of e-waste generation.

Ara is promising. It certainly is building a bright future ahead.

The above article was published on 27 August, 2016. Google later rescheduled it’s launch of the project to a future date, not announced as of yet.