One configuration of Google's Project Ara modular phone.
Google, Inc.

With open architecture for personalization and innovation.

By David Z. Morris
May 21, 2016

After a year of near-total invisibility, Google’s Project Ara came roaring back yesterday, with the announcement at Google I/O that the modular phone would be in consumers’ hands next year. Ara developer kits will ship later this year, so third-party developers can start building modules.

The Ara project was once dismissed as a pipe dream, but recent changes to both the team and the approach helped push it to the starting line. One of the largest changes, as described by Wired, was axing upgradeable processors and RAM. Instead, the phone’s core architecture will be static, with the flexibility to change or upgrade secondary features like cameras, batteries, and extra screens.

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Ara’s open development means it’s a space for innovation. The short list of third-party proposals shared with Wired included projectors, flashlights, microphones, and even low-tech options like pill boxes. Niche features like that would be very hard to justify integrating into any all-in-one phone, but Ara will let developers experiment on a smaller scale.

Ara’s arrival is extremely timely. Smartphone growth has slowed as market saturation approaches. Not only are there fewer new customers, the upgrade cycle appears to be slowing. Among other things, that has made Apple APPL suddenly look a good bit more fragile.

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Project Ara could be the right solution for that new environment, by allowing both incremental upgrades and greater personalization. With enough of the right partners on board (and assuming the technology really, really works), Ara’s appeal could squeeze a bit more life out of a waning cycle. Google GOOG seems to think so—this is the first smartphone they’ll be manufacturing themselves, suggesting they’re more willing to put skin in the game on Ara than they have been on more conventional smartphones.

Prices for either the developer kit and consumer phone are not yet public, but Google tells Wired that Ara will start life as a “high-end device.” Developer kits will ship this fall.

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