A closer look at Project Ara: Google's modular smartphone heads to Puerto Rico

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA—If you told me a year ago that Google would actually launch its modular smartphone in 2015, I would have laughed in your face. It didn’t seem like Ara was a bonafide “thing” when it debuted last April, or that it would ever be ready for distribution.

And yet, here I am in Mountain View at Google headquarters for the Project Ara Developer Conference, experiencing first-hand the company’s second-generation modular smartphone.

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The Project Ara smartphone in all of its customizable glory.

For the uninitiated, Project Ara is just one of Google’s many extreme science projects. It’s the company’s vision for bringing a modular smartphone to the masses, and it’s so nascent that it doesn’t really exist—at least not yet, and not in the way that you can go online and buy one. Google already has plans in place for Puerto Rico as its first test market, and though there are so many details that have yet to be figured out, it’s interesting to see how much the prototype and its launch plans has evolved in just nine months.

The Frankenphone

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One of the Project Ara smartphones. Every component of the phone can be customized to your liking with your own skin—kind of like Motorola’s Moto Maker.

Google is still figuring a lot of things about Project Ara; what I saw behind closed doors is just a prototype.

Google’s modular smartphone features a double-sided spine with twelve connectors on the back and two on the front. The slots each contain electro-permanent magnets that hold all components together. It’s blocky, as if you stuck a bunch of LEGO pieces to a starter board, but it’s also stylish in its own kooky way.

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It’s pretty kooky looking from afar—but also kind of cool?

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The “endoskeleton” of the Project Ara smartphone.

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An individual module you can pop into the endoskeleton.

It doesn’t really matter what components are in the Project Ara smartphone because you’re the one who ends up choosing how it will be configured, anyway. Google is trying to figure out the logistics of some of the default components that come with it, however, like what kind of battery it’ll use. The company said it’s more focused on innovating on current battery technology rather than defaulting to what the rest of the major smartphone manufacturers currently use. 

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Slots, slots, slots, slots slots slots—EVERYBODYYYYY.

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A look at a Project Ara smartphone in a different style.

Reworking Android for Project Ara

Google doesn’t want the same thing that’s happened to Android to happen to Project Ara’s module ecosystem, either. It’s hoping to combat “forking” by requiring that developers meet full Android API compliance before they ship a component. It’s also asking SoC vendors to re-work the framework customizations so that the components are compatible with all modules, and it’s working on developing specific standards that third-party developers should follow when creating their own modules. 

Security matters, however, are still a little shaky. Google isn’t fully aware of all the security issues that might affect its modular smartphone, but it did assure everyone that it this was something it was in the process of figuring it out.

Testing in Puerto Rico first

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“Why Puerto Rico?” you ask? Google’s got plenty of reasons.

The Project Ara modular smartphone isn’t coming to the states yet, but it is coming to Latin America. Or rather, only a tiny portion of it.

Google said it’s hitting Puerto Rico first because of it diverse mobile user base, and the fact that over 75 percent of its users access the Internet through a mobile device. Those are reasons the for why Latin America is such a hot market for other OEMs, too. So it makes perfect sense that Google would start there, where it can closely watch the way its modular smartphone performs.

Roshni Srinivasan, the head of product rollout at Project Ara, added that Puerto Rico will be instrumental in understanding how consumers will react to Ara. “We found that as a degree of customization and self expression starts to grow, people actually are willing to pay more,” she said, which is why Google will also be studying how potential Ara customers will navigate all the different choices presented to them.

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The app that lets you order a smartphone module. 

Project Ara’s distribution model is a still a bit of a head scratcher, though. There will be an Ara-specific app where you can order components based on your needs, but it’s also introducing a retail “food truck” of sorts that would enable potential users sample the components in a Bento-box style manner. Google’s ultimate goal seems to be to inspire a “sharing economy” of components, but swapping parts in and out of the phone will have to work really well before anyone starts swapping, for instance, camera modules.

Doing it the “Googley” way

It’s lofty and it seems unorganized, but that seems to be the way Google does things sometimes. This is only Google’s second-generation prototype, and according to the product roadmap, we may not see the final iteration of the modular smartphone until the company is ready to launch it in Puerto Rico toward the third- or fourth-quarter of the year.

The Android maker is doing the right thing by testing out one particular Latin American market first before it goes mainstream. It’s an exciting opportunity to really see a product flourish from its infancy, and though it’s way too early to tell if Project Ara will ever be successful endeavor, it’ll sure be fun to watch how Google’s latest project unfolds.

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