Project Ara: how Google set out to build the last smartphone

Tired of upgrading your phone every few years? Meet the modular chameleon that might just be the only portable gadget you’ll ever need…

Google Project Ara - the last smartphone you'll ever need?

In the future, your phone won’t be a single chunk of gadgetry.

It’ll be a collection of things that you can click together into phones of different sizes depending on how you’re feeling, what you’re wearing and what you plan to do. It’ll have every sensor under the sun, but only if you decide to add them, and it’ll be permanently future-proof, because adding a new processor will be as simple as slotting in a SIM card.

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? But it's happening. Very soon in fact. Google's Project Ara aims to usher in a brave new world of modular smartphones, with the sales of the first generation of handsets due in Puerta Rico later this year.

Join us as we travel into the brave new world of Project Ara to find out if it really is the last phone you’ll ever buy.

READ MORE: Living with... the Google Nexus 6

A phone you can break

Google Project Ara - the last smartphone you'll ever need?

Google Project Ara - the last smartphone you'll ever need?

How many gadgets have you bought? As a Stuff-reading technology wizard, we’re guessing your answer will be: “Oh, most of them." But how many of them have eventually stopped working and been thrown away? Sadly, your answer is likely to be the same: most of them.

For decades we’ve bought things we can’t repair, with screens that break and batteries that lose their juice after six months. And every time that happens, we check our insurance, summon a shiny new replacement and send the old gadget to be buried in a mountain of VHS tapes, broken furniture and those bags of salad that never get finished. There has to be a better way.

It was exactly these kinds of thoughts that began bouncing around the brain of Dutch product designer Dave Hakkens last year when his camera broke. Or rather, when part of it broke. That part was easily replaceable – although he’s not an engineer, Hakkens was able to spot the defective lens motor and remove it. The only problem was, he couldn’t get a replacement, because camera companies don’t sell lens motors. They sell cameras.

“That’s the weird thing about electronics,” says Hakkens. “If your car or your bike is faulty, you fix it. But with the camera, they said I should just throw it away and buy a new one.”

Instead, Hakkens began thinking about how to make gadgets that could be repaired and upgraded, rather than replaced. He quickly realised the ubiquitous smartphone was the best place to start, and began designing a phone with removable components that could be swapped when they break or get old.

But while Hakkens has a gift for ideas, he’s not an electrical engineer. “I had an idea for a phone, but I couldn’t build it,” he says. “So I thought, what’s the best way to get this done?”

The answer was to do what no large company in its right mind would do with an idea like this: he made a video explaining his idea, and put it on the internet.

The response to Hakkens’ concept phone, which he called Phonebloks, was huge. Within days he had over 900,000 supporters on the Thunderclap public speaking platform and the campaign reached an estimated 380 million people on social media, not to mention TV, newspapers and magazines (yes, you did see it in Stuff magazine's Hot Stuff section).

Among the huge number of responses, there was an email that would make Hakkens’ dream a reality.

“We got a lot of people and companies responding, and one of them was Motorola. They said they were working on something similar, but they’d been doing it secretly in their lab.”