Google Ara: In 2017 Smartphones WILL Go Modular

News Paul Briden 13:58, 23 May 2016

Google's Project Ara is a modular smartphone which could re-define the market

It's been a while since we heard anything about Ara - Google's modular smartphone concept. A good long while. In fact, everything went a bit tits up with Google's failed and retracted "launch" in Peurto Rico, and because that was all a bit embarassing the firm has been quiet ever since.

Now though, modular technology is back in the news with the LG G5's modular component and rumours that the revamped Moto X (aka Moto Z) for 2016 will feature a modular capability. Google's even released a promotional video, check it out...

So now Ara is back, or at least it is for developers. Yes, it's fair to say that Google's pace has slowed recently, but this appears to be a very deliberate decision, as if it is one born out of a series of internal meetings and big board-level decisions. Previously Google has launched new Android builds at its annual Google I/O conference, where it would also usually announce a new set of Nexus phones running the software - there would then be a period of time - like a few months - for developers to get used to the changes in Android and create new apps or new versions of existing apps for it. Then the new Nexus phones would launch, and Android would be released publicly, rolling out gradually to existing phones.

The tone is different this year, Google I/O 2016 is just winding down and there's been no announcement of new Nexus hardware - in fact Google hasn't even done its usual I/O move of giving the new build a confectionary-based alphabetic moniker like Marshmallow, Lollipop and so on.

Essentially, Google revealed more projects and initiatives, and some more details of what's new in Android N, then released another dev build. So while we can still expect more Nexus hardware and a proper release of Android N later in the year, the old schedule is gone in favour of something more cautious. It seems Google would now prefer to let things cook to perfection before serving, so to speak.

And that's probably true of Ara too. The original plan was for Ara to go to public launch in 2015, but of course that never happened.

Now the firm has revealed a developer model will be released in "fall" (ie: Autumn) of 2016 with the goal of a consumer-facing version arriving inside 2017. Reports circulating as of May 23 indicate that as many as 30 Google insiders are currently using Ara phones, while Google itself claims it has "all the key components of the platform," in some kind of working order.

We don't yet know a great deal about the developer model, but it has been revealed it will pack a 5.3in display and, of course, it's Android based. There are six module slots on the developer module, although we do know from earlier reveals that there are plans for multiple size "cores" which can handle different numbers of modules; however, whether this plan has been scrapped by now isn't known.

A shortlist of confirmed OEMs working on modules includes Panasonic, TDK, iHealth, E Ink, Toshiba, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Samsung. The module connectors are universal so you're not restricted in how you attach them, and attachment is software-locked so you can't accidentally pull one out. This even opens up voice control, allegedly, so you could tell the phone by voice command to eject a camera or speaker module, for instance.

What is Ara?

The concept is a simple one –– you buy a basic model Ara phone and all the bits can be pulled off and swapped as you see fit. Fancy a more powerful camera module? You'll be able to buy one through Google's dedicated store - a treasure trove of hardware modules populated by components made by third-party manufacturers, from the likes of Samsung and its ilk, right down to little independent devs working out of their basements - just like Google Play for apps, in fact. The same will be true of many other components, including things like memory, display panels, physical keyboards, sensors and scanners, ports, modems and wireless modules, and much, much more.

The Verge got a look at some Ara prototypes at Google HQ. Here's an extract from their report: "This very early version of the phone we played was functional, although we weren't allowed to turn it on and use it, in part because the touch features aren't up and running, Google said. The company showed it booting up on stage, but not working. The hardware itself feels very solid, thanks to its aluminum and steel frame, which looks like a ribcage when all the modules are popped out. The modules on the other hand feel light and plasticky, and made holding the phone feel a bit strange. If you're used to the smooth corners you'd find on most smartphones, the ribbed channels on the Spiral 2 feel bizarre. Nothing rattled or slid out while we were playing around with it, though it's hard to tell how it will really work without the magnets."

Google provided some details about what it has been up to since announcing some prior details about Ara at I/O 2014. The Big G has been busy working with Marvell and NVIDIA in order to get some reference CPUs made for Ara. Below is an extract from Google’s G+ update on the subject and what progress has been made. 

“For the AP modules, we have been working with our friends at Marvell and NVIDIA to create two separate reference designs and form factor module prototypes around their PXA1928 and Tegra K1 processors, respectively, using a Toshiba UniPro bridge ASIC to connect to the on-device network. You can anticipate seeing these as part of the reference designs in our upcoming MDK v0.20 release. (The Rockchip AP with native UniPro that we blogged about previously is coming along nicely and will be ready in time for our Spiral 3 prototype in the Spring.),” said Google in a post on Google+.

Google Ara Module Showcase

Check out some of the images Pocket-Lint snapped below, noteworthy modules, as well as the game controller, appear to include a fingerprint scanner, a media control button module (for music/film playback), an NFC chip, and what looks like some kind of removable storage.

Project Ara Delays - What's The Deal?

Ok, so the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. It seems things have not gone as smoothly with the push for Ara to get a proper launch inside 2015 as Google had originally hoped. Project Ara's Twitter account has posted several Tweets explaining that the project has been delayed until 2016.

A post by blogger and analyst Dr Richard Windsor, suggests Google has tripped up on the fact that "a modular device is far harder than it sounds."

In his report, Windsor states that Google was planning to launch in Puerto Rico (as outlined above) during 2015, but the project is now in "on hold".

"This may have something to do with the new move to be more cost conscious as I continue to believe that Project Ara will be another financial black hole like Google +," he writes.

Windsor notes that Google isn't the only firm in the smartphone space trying to develop a modular device and adds that all of them are "having difficulties."

He highlights some key points as to why the modular concept is causing issues:

  • "Making a modular device is extremely difficult because modularity adds a new series of requirements and constraints.
  • A modular device is a phone, tablet or other device where individual components such as the screen, camera, CPU, battery, memory can be removed by the user and replaced by others with a different specification.
  • Each module requires an individual case and a connector. These take up space, making the resulting device bulkier and less sleek-looking than a normal device.
  • Each swappable component has to remain distinct from all the others. Integrating components together is a tried and tested method of cost and size reduction meaning that a modular device has always been more expensive to make.
  • Every swappable component has to be tested with every other in every possible configuration to ensure that they all work together properly. This means that testing and certification is much more onerous meaningfully increasing development costs."

Windsor then goes on to outline four rules that a modular phone must meet in order for it to be successful:

  1. "It must be the same size and weight as competing products.
  2. It must make no compromises in terms of styling,
  3. It must offer the same functionality as competing products.
  4. It must come at the same price point."

He says that so far, no device, including Ara, has met these criteria. The only kicker here is a closing comment where he states:

"I suspect that it will be one of the larger players that is well financed, has a track record in hardware design and has money for marketing that eventually cracks it."

In our thinking though, surely Google would qualify? It has so much money and a successful devices project with the Nexus line.

Linaro Goes Hands On With Google Ara

Ahead of Ara’s release, Linaro, a non-profit engineering firm involved in the ARM open-source community, spent a little hands-on time with Google’s prototype Ara device. In order to better understand the technology and the problems facing its adoption, Linaro posted a video outlining its findings, as noted by Android Authority.

“Ideally,” said the report, “Ara requires hardware vendors to collaborate on a specific device class, so that batteries, audio, WiFi components, etc, from different vendors all play nicely with Ara, much like common PCI-E, USB, or UART standards used in other pieces of hardware. The ARM development community and Google are approaching major vendors to try and address the issue, which could to help avoid the irritations and incompatibility issues associated with proprietary software and hardware.”

Check out Linaro’s video hands-on and thoughts below:

Sennheiser Showcases Project Ara Advanced Audio Modules

Arguably one of the biggest things about Project Ara is how it could go some way to levelling the playing field when it comes to hardware development. Just as with apps on Google Play, which sees small, independent developers making apps that prove just as popular with punters (and as profitable) as those coming from big names like Samsung, HTC, and indeed Google itself, Google's Ara marketplace will allow garage-based developers to sell hardware components alongside industry giants.

So far though, much of the talk about Ara has focused on these small independent devs whipping up nifty components with 3D printers in their basements, we haven't actually seen a lot of what big name companies might do with the concept. Until now, that is. World famous German audio specialist Sennheiser has stepped in to show what it has planned for Ara.

Collaborating with Phonebloks (a company which was working on modular phones before Ara came into existence and which has since become very close to Google via the Ara project), Sennheiser has come up with some module concepts for improving the audio aboard your Ara device.

The first of these is dubbed "Amphion" and promises "Audiophile audio. On a phone." It will allegedly offer some incredibly high quality capture and playback using a "class G" amplifier and low-noise microphone. It also has a low latency digital signal processor, which feasibly could be used to link up to custom Sennheiser audio equaliser setups, and offer built-in digital effects at the same time. What's more it can be programmed by the user (if you're that way inclined), meaning you really can tweak it for a range of use scenarios.

Sennheiser claims it's so good that even the likes of professional musicians, and journalists like us lot, will be lining up to use this little mod.

Next up is "Proteus", featuring dual audio jacks - there's a wide range of applications here for audio sharing and output, but also multiple microphones for directional audio capture.

That's it for now, but it definitely highlights the other strength of Ara: user choice. Sennheiser's gearing up to offer something for people who really want the best audio experience on their smartphone.

Toshiba Camera Modules Surface

Toshiba has unveiled its own contribution to the tantalising modular phone project, naturally the subject here is camera modules. The company revealed a 2MP front-facing module for selfies, and both 5MP and 13MP rear-facing primary modules.

Toshiba says it has three-year development plans in place and the first set of hardware will be available during 2016. The Japanese camera firm also released a video showcase and has a dedicated site for the modules.

Google Showcases Project Ara at Google I/O 2014

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google took the opportunity to showcase Project Ara a little bit at its Google I/O 2014 conference. A video has been uplaoded to Youtube showing project chief Paul Eremenko assembling an Ara handset from component modules and booting it up.

Well, sort of booting it up. Such teething issues are perhaps to be expected at such an early stage, but the device only got as far as Android logo - no lock screen or anything else. Still, Eremenko did say that it's an early stage of development and nowhere near ready for public release, making it rather brave to show it trying to operate in public for the first time.

Eremenko described Ara's goal to allow users to choose a smartphone first then add key components, rather than picking a smartphone based on what pre-specified components a manufacturer has already added that are fixed. Cameras are the easiest and most relatable example, because some users don't care about cameras at all while for others its a key selling point, and a lot of phones make a big song and dance about their camera tech.

Google took to its own Google+ social media platform with some photos revealing a prototype skeleton filled with circuits and connectors – this isn’t a concept render anymore, this is a real piece of kit.

Google has even mentioned there’s an idea for a Google Play Store equivalent for developer-made Ara hardware modules. You’ll be able to order them, have them delivered and slot them into your phone.

The modules are reportedly as little as 4mm thick in some cases and overall bulk for the most decked-out Ara handsets isn’t expected to surpass 10mm in total thickness of the devcie. The modules will use a secure locking system so that should you drop your handset it won’t explode into its component bits.

“Removing a module will require disengaging it through an app on the phone, which will release whatever mechanism was locking it in place,” reports The Verge.

Presumably any software required for things like advanced cameras will have a partner app issued through Google Play.

According to Time’s report, Ara will come in three size variants at first; “mini, medium and jumbo”, which will cover all currently popular sizes from compact to phablet. While nothing specific has been said, in theory each size variant could offer a smaller or greater number of module slots.

Project Ara's leader, Paul Eremenko, told Time, “The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software? Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space.”

For fans of aesthetics it’s not just functional modules that are planned either. Google reportedly has its eye on leveraging 3D-printing to enable user customisation of material types, design style and, of course, colour – some concepts have even shown patterened panels.

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