Google on Tuesday announced that it will launch a modular smartphone platform in early 2015, letting users pick and change out hardware components just as they do with software apps today. The plan, called Project Ara, could revolutionize a quickly maturing smartphone market if it unfolds as Google believes it will.
"The smartphone is one of the most empowering and intimate objects in our lives," a Google statement notes. "Yet most of us have little say in how the device is made, what it does, and how it looks. And 5 billion of us don't have one. What if you could make thoughtful choices about exactly what your phone does, and use it as a creative canvas to tell your own story?"
News of the 2015 launch came during the first-ever Ara Developer Conference, which is being held this week at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, just south of San Francisco. At the show, Google also released an alpha version of the Ara Module Developers Kit (MDK), which the firm describes as an open platform specification and reference implementation that contains everything needed to develop Ara modules. These modules plug into an Ara exoskeleton, which can together form a complete—and fully customized—smartphone.
Interestingly, the hardware modules on an Ara device look like real world versions of the software-based live tiles on Windows Phone. Each module can be highly specialized, with as many components as can fit in the space allotted. So while some will be single-use components—a camera, perhaps—others will squeeze multiple functions into a single component. And as new technology or features arrive, a user's smartphone will no longer be rendered immediately obsolete.
"We want to make the smartphone hardware ecosystem more like that of the software ecosystem that underpins Android," Project Ara lead Paul Eremenko told PC World, noting that the goal was to ship a $50 so-called "gray phone" that includes a screen, battery, microprocessor and Wi-Fi module. "A grey phone could be shrink-wrapped and something you could buy at your local convenience store," he said. "Your fire up your grey phone, run the Ara configurator and start purchasing modules in the marketplace."
Google will update Android to support this hardware switching functionality, and with Google I/O just a month away, that might be the obvious target date for an announcement. The firm will also release various Ara pre-release updates throughout 2014, and a prototype Ara device is expected in September. In addition to providing users with choice, the Ara devices are expected to last 5 to 6 years, far longer than the average life span of today's smart phones. That longevity is key for "the remaining 6 billion" people who do not already own smartphones, Google says.