Google’s customisable modular phone, Project Ara, could hit shelves as soon as January 2015.
The initial release will be an entry-level “grey phone” with a production cost – not street price – of US$50. It will consist of an "Endo" frame, screen and Wi-Fi radio – enabling users to swap modular components in and out to tailor the phone to their needs. Google's also planning a high-end version of the phone with a US$500 production cost.
Google announced the news at its Project Ara developers’ conference, showing off an early form factor prototype device – non-functional, since its screen was broken.
The protoype Ara phone did, however, show off Google’s design language for the phone – it’s consciously avoiding a blocky form factor in favour of “smooth, pebble-like” tiles that slot into the phone’s Endo frame.
Although not present on the demo phone, Project Ara's modules will be held in place by electropermanent magnets – when they’re hit with an “on” pulse, they'll create a bond between the Endo and the module, which is disabled with an "off" pulse; they don't require a constant charge to maintain the bond.
Those tiles include everything from processor, battery and RAM modules to more esoteric gadgets – a pulse oximeter that extends beyond the phone’s frame, as well as an infra-red camera that bulges out from the tile's surface.
Google's planning to make Project Ara phones in three configurations: Mini, Medium and Large – roughly comparable to candybar, smartphone and phablet sizes. Project Ara will also make use of 3D printing – Google's collaborating with 3D Systems to create a 3D printing process that's suitable for mass production – creating glossy components with a 600dpi print resolution.
Naturally, the Project Ara phones will run Android; you'll be able to buy new modules from a Google-run online store. The plan is for a Project Ara phone to have a much longer lifespan than current mobile phones – five to six years, with customers upgrading their phone over its lifespan by saving up for new modules. It's a potentially revolutionary idea – we'll just have to wait and see if Google can pull it off.