Project Ara: is it the future of phones, or merely a cool niche?

by: Seth FitzgeraldAugust 12, 2014

motorola project ara modular smartphone (2)

Google’s modular smartphone concept, otherwise known as Project Ara, seems a bit crazy to say the least. The current trend in mobile is for devices to be as slim and powerful as possible, yet Google is attempting to accomplish something quite different with Ara. Instead, Google thinks people are interested in building their own phones and having complete control over the components used in their devices. To provide that level of customizability, however, Google is willing to sacrifice high-end specs, tight designs, and — frankly — attractiveness.

Project Ara is based around modules, small individual components that people can swap out to speed up upgrade and development cycles. According to Project Ara team member Kaigham Gabriel, development cycles for smartphone hardware are far too long when compared to software development cycles. The average smartphone manufacturer aims to come out with updates for their devices every year, but it sometimes takes even longer for a refresh to be released. Gabriel thinks a modular smartphone using Ara could be continuously updated, effectively reducing upgrade cycles to just a few months.

The current trend in mobile is for devices to be as slim and powerful as possible, yet Google is attempting to accomplish something quite different with Ara

The only real involvement Google has with the project is working with module manufacturers and providing the frames that the modules sit on. Google’s Ara frames will come in three sizes, and each will represent the different size smartphones currently on the market. The “mini” frame will be the size of a feature phone, while the “medium” and “large” frames will be the size of the Nexus 5 and Galaxy Note 3, respectively. Project Ara will initially be targeted at emerging markets, so the mini and medium frames will receive the most attention when Ara rolls out.


On a technical level, the frames provided by Google will each include a few simple components and the circuits necessary for each module to work with one another. Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta Computer has been tasked with providing the frames, and each will be 9mm thick. Quanta’s frames ship with small 400mAh batteries that are used to power the core electrical components. Other than a battery, only an electrical circuit comes with the frame, so consumers must purchase modules for almost every part of an Ara device. These modules will vary in cost depending on what they provide. If people want fast processors and high-end cameras, they are going to pay a premium to build that sort of phone.

No mobile operating system currently on the market understands how to deal with modular components

Admittedly, the Ara team faces a few challenges with the project, which could hinder their ability to move forward with ease. First of all, no mobile operating system currently on the market understands how to deal with modular components, so a heavily modified software interface is necessary for Ara to work even in the simplest of ways. Additionally, the Ara team must figure out what interface should be used to physically connect the modules. Since an Ara phone is not integrated like a regular handset, inductive or hybrid interfaces are necessary just to allow data rates to remain similar to those found in current smartphones.

Actually holding the modules in place is also important, and upon hearing about Ara many people immediately imagined phones falling apart the second they dropped onto a floor. The good news is that the Ara team says it will be using electro-magnets to hold the modules together with a 30 Newton force. No drop or even pulling on the components will be able to knock the modules away from each other.

Project Ara module slots

To take the phone apart or add new modules to it, the phone must be powered down since the electro-magnets will only exert a 5 Newton force when turned off. This force is great enough to hold an Ara phone together until someone wants to remove modules.

Is Ara the future direction for smartphones, or just a niche?

There is no reason this design will not result in Ara phones being successful in their own right, but the real question everyone is asking is whether or not Ara is the future of smartphones. Module-based phones are the exact opposite of what we see on the market in 2014. Smartphone manufacturers are, with many of their devices, removing the ability for people to even gain access to a device’s battery, yet Google wants people to build their own phones. There are clear benefits many consumers enjoy as a result of these tight enclosures, so it may very well be the case that Ara is the future of smartphones for certain people rather than the entire market.

Part of the reason why phones like the HTC One M8 and iPhone 5S are successful is that they are great looking devices, and that style isn’t easily attainable with Ara. Google admits Ara will not be anywhere near as compact as the phones currently on the market, and that fact alone will turn some people away from the project. 

By building your own computer or buying an Ara smartphone, upgrades can be made at anytime, but that isn’t important to all consumers

In Google’s defense, however, there are specific groups of people who are bound to enjoy the upgradability that comes with an Ara device. These are the same people who find building a PC makes more sense than buying a pre-built desktop. By building your own computer or buying an Ara smartphone, upgrades can be made at anytime, but that isn’t important to all consumers.

Project Ara Camera Module

Gabriel expects Ara devices will initially cost as much as 25 percent more than their compact counterparts, and in addition to being more expensive, they will consume more power and require larger batteries. The only way for Google to make Ara work is to prove that faster upgrade cycles are worth the time and money. Those who like to tinker with their devices will have few reasons to stay away from Ara, yet people who enjoy the simplicity of buying a phone, turning it on, and having it work will have many reasons to steer clear of the project.

One of the less often talked about benefits of Ara as a platform is that any manufacturer capable of meeting Google’s standards can create modules for the project. This means an Ara device may not be anything like a traditional smartphone, but rather a mobile device created for specific purposes. It isn’t implausible to think manufacturers could come out with modules specifically for the medical community, for example.

This means Ara has places where it can fit in, but it would be incorrect to think Ara will at any point in the near future directly compete with traditional mobile devices.

  • Tjaldid

    it’s not the Future. at least not the way it is today

    • Shark Bait

      And space travel isn’t the future either, at least jot the way it is today.
      (What an odd statement)

  • pseudo

    I don’t think it looks bad.

  • Jack Parker

    I can’t wait to buy one

  • wezi427

    It’s in my future.

  • Woe of [S]unjΔy

    It’s the future but it’s will be a niche today. Modular devices will definitely be the future but not until they become cheaper.

  • NexusKoolaid

    Might be a short-lived concept. Over time I suspect we’ll see just a handful of popular build-outs appear, after which manufacturers will merely build all-in-ones that conform to those specs. The only ones that carry forward with this concept would be those that constantly reconfigure their phones from time to time rather than stick with their initial design.

  • crutchcorn

    It depends now; on the marketing, support from module makers, and ease of development. Google REALLY needs to stand behind this one… More than anything in the past.

  • nhu

    5inch 720p Super AMOLED RGB screen
    4000 mAh battery
    tegra K1
    dual front speakers
    Qi charging
    4GB Ram
    128 GB hard drive
    20 MP back camera and 5 MP front camera
    If I could make an Ara with all those specs, then it would be an instant buy for me

    • MasterMuffin

      Hard drive o.O

      • renz

        Yup. We need mechanical hard disk on our phone. Big capacity FTW.

        • MasterMuffin

          I would have agreed if that was 256GB or more. You can get 128GB SSD (though it’ll be expensive)

          • renz

            I want at least 1TB on my phone. :p With the ability to add another 5-9 more HDD along the way. So when can we SLI/CF our Soc to increase performance? That way there is no need to get entirely new phone when I want performance upgrade.

          • MasterMuffin

            Yes, me wants SLI nao!

          • arb

            1TB on your phone? And you are aware of the low speeds of HDD’s? Don’t see why regular flash 128GB wouldn’t be sufficient.

    • dodz

      i think we get his point about the storage, but what bugs me is 720p on a 5 inch, cmon’.

      • WestIndiesKING

        Yeah 1080p definitely for me. 2k once devs update a majority of apps. And yes i notice a difference.

      • nhu

        2 reasons:
        1. 720p is good enough. I have perfect vision and it is good enough. Anyone who wants more pixels is trying to hard to look for pixels and/or is a spec whore…
        2. I want amazing battery life. By amazing, I mean lasting two days on heavy usage

        • John

          Yeah, I’d like to be able to swap out for an eink display when I’m reading books for long periods of time. Why waste all that battery power when I don’t need it?

  • I heard that Google is working with open-source development organization Linaro to
    develop a special edition of Android for the Project Ara customizable
    smartphone. So, it won’t be an issue. But if we go thro’ the comments made in this video, we can understand that lot of people are not having positive comments about this concept itself. i-e they prefer to replace the entire phone itself instead of replacing modules.

    Anyway, the people passionate about module phone system will make it survive.

  • Emmanuel

    At it’s current state… it’s not the future… I mean given that there is a specific size for each module slot, I cannot see much “FLEXIBILITY” in this model. What you’re getting here is customizability not flexibility. You can only fit so much in each slot.

  • Ryan Lounsbury

    I’ll go with purely a cool niche much like building powerhouse gaming PC’s. I think the public in general just wants to buy a phone and have it work without any fuss. They don’t necessarily want to have to deal with modules but just buy a phone, turn it on, and go about their day.

    I do think there is plenty of folks in the modder/custom market that would love to build their own devices with modules. But that isn’t a terribly large group.

    If Ara goes mainstream its because manufactures use the module system but cover it all up with the phones body or an aluminum sleeve. So that way people that want to go custom can but for everyone else it’s just a phone. But I gotta think there is far more money in selling the entire device and not just modules that plug into the device.

    • Shark Bait

      Every laptop and PC on the market it modular. They may come prepackaged, but every component is modular. Ara will end up being something similar imo

      • Ryan Lounsbury

        I’m not so sure I’d call laptops modular. There are replaceable parts that you can swap with aftermarket/non-OEM parts but by and large what you get in a laptop is what you get. You can’t swap out the screen, keyboard, main board, processor, camera, etc. Just minor items like RAM & disk. That was my point when I noted if Ara goes mainstream it will be in limited fashion from OEM’s much like the laptop example. To this day there is no market to build your own custom laptop from scratch like you can a desktop PC.

        The true Ara concept where you have a frame with a bus that allows you to swap out every component of the device (just like a custom built desktop PC) will probably be a small market with a few vendors but not the mainstream system for developing and producing smartphones.

  • Shark Bait

    The future!
    The first iterations will be a niche, but I strongly believe it will be the future. I did a feasibility study into this, and there are many advantages over a common phone, if it done correctly. Most notably their are huge environmental advantages, plus the improved economic of a modular design make things easier for the manufacturer and cheaper for the user.
    Its what’s happened with thec industry, it stands to reason the phone industry will follow suite once the technology is mature

  • renz

    They try to compare this with building custom PC but PC have all the necessary things to enable that ‘custom’ build to happen. They need more hardware partner that can provide the component needed not just from one or two company (For example there is a lot of company making monitors for computer). Also if possible they need big phone maker itself to promote this concept to customer.

  • David Rutla

    I hate to say this but if MS could make Windows just like PC or similar to it…drivers would work best. As much as i love android idk if it can be optimized to allow multiple modules from varying capacities and speeds