On the rights of offtop: Google Project Ara as an example of a modular smartphone

Modular smartphones — myth or reality? News about Project Ara and thoughts about the future of modular mobile devices.

For the First time about Project Ara (at that time Motorola Ara) we heard back in 2013. This is a project of modular smartphone, which was originally developed by Motorola, and then, after the purchase of this company the search giant, has moved to Google.

Motorola Ara project, modular smartphone Android

Motorola described the project as an open hardware platform for creating modular phones, which was supposed to be for the market mobile iron what Android has become for software. It is not just about the original smartphone, but about an entire ecosystem, which will be able to get anyone. For manufacturers this means minimum development time and low financial cost for users – ability to collect on the basis of the proposed solution the phone of your dreams, quickly and easily replace the failed unit or to improve obsolete component without paying for the whole phone.

Open any review of any smartphone and read a dozen other reviews. Most of them always boils down to the fact that it would be the perfect phone if not for one "but". For example, some potential buyers of Samsung smartphones stop from buying Amoled screen. But many HTC fans are hesitant to buy the HTC One because of the 4 MP camera. Audiophiles and did complain that to find a phone with high-quality sound in our days is almost impossible and sadly remember the "music" phones of the past. And even those smartphone all more or less satisfied, will complain that the battery could be bigger.

Project Ara could bring an end to such problems once and for all, allowing every customer to order (or even personally to collect) phone of your dreams. Want to add to your smartphone stereo speakers? Or increase the battery capacity? To add an NFC module, or a heartbeat sensor? And maybe change the type, size or screen resolution? Now everything is in your hands.

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According to the developers this smartphone will consist of a metal frame and individual modules that will be attached to it with magnets. Some of them can be replaced "on the fly" by simply disconnecting the desired magnet through a special application on the smartphone.

In the future frameworks it is planned to produce several sizes, from 4 to 6.5-inch. In different modules of a lack too will not be – to support the Project Ara has already announced a sufficient number of companies, NVIDIA and Toshiba to Sennheiser.

the above video will tell a little about how the team behind Project Ara, and about the early development process of the smartphone.

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Last Summer, has information about the first processor that will be used in future versions of the platform. Its development will deal with Rockchip, and the main feature of the processor will be the UniPro Protocol that will enable different mobile components to interact in a standardized way. On the one hand, this will release a large part of CPU resources for applications. On the other – eliminates the need to install in smartphone a separate chip, which would link all the modules together.

Most Likely, Rockchip arrives only to the third generation machines. Meanwhile, the Project Ara device work mainly on the processors, Marvell and NVIDIA.

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Around the same time, there were rumors about the work of Google engineers over the screens of modular type which can be assembled from several blocks. According to the Wall Street Journal, such displays can be assembled almost as easily as figures from Lego, giving them any shape and any sizes. Unfortunately, no information about progress on this project, but if something like this really will be implemented before Project Ara will open up new horizons.

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For the First time a working prototype of a modular smartphone was officially shown to the public at the conference Google I/O. it Should be noted that at the time, not everything went smoothly – when you first start the smartphone hangs while loading the operating system. But considering that the first launch of a prototype took place just a week before Google I/O, it's quite forgivable.

But in the heat of passion event, is not much inferior to launch innovative spacecraft – per-second count, the successful launch, applause... I am sure that if the presentation was in Russian, not would have been without the famous "Go!".

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But the main question is not so much the technical side of these devices as their design. Even if modern smartphones are called "plastic bricks" and "horizontal black bars" that some epithets from users will be awarded the Project Ara device? Indeed, the modular smartphone concept imposes very severe restrictions on its design. And indeed, the design of the devices has never been a strong point of Google – it is worth remembering those of Google Glass, which has long seemed very specific. When you're looking at the picture, still OK, but to wear such a thing were not all ready.

Fortunately, all is not so scary. For the design of modular smartphones will meet the company Gecko Design, which the search giant is specially bought to work on Project Ara. In the past specialists of Gecko Design have often collaborated with both Google and other famous companies. And had a hand in the design of the device Fitbit, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Logitech, and others.

Google did not hesitate to bring to work on your project specialists from different fields. Designers and engineers from different companies work side by side, and, apparently, consider the idea of Google not just as a interesting and useful project, but as a challenge to their abilities. And really worried about the result.

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A few days ago at the event Project Ara Developers Conference was presented the first commercial version of Project Ara. Smartphone Spiral 2 and for the first time will be sold only in Puerto Rico, which will allow Google to evaluate the interest of users to devices of this type.

of Course, the Spiral 2 is not more than the first sighting shot, and expect a lot from him not worth it. By itself this smartphone special delight does not cause, though more or less decent features: screen with 1280x720 resolution, a Marvell PXA1928 or NVIDIA Tegra K1, 5 MP main camera, modules Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. And plug-in modules to it until quite a bit – at the start of the sales there will be only 11 pieces, although towards the end of the year their number will increase to 30. Another bad point is the weak battery, which, according to forecasts, the device will run on 30% less time than the average Android smartphone.

On the other hand, Google already talking about the development of Spiral 3, which will be deprived of all these shortcomings.

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But despite all the controversies, Spiral 2 already allows to estimate the initial idea behind Project Ara. Android has always been famous for the wide opportunities of customization, but if before it were just about software, but now nothing prevents to change to your taste and even the iron and the appearance of the device.

To Create a smartphone will be using the Ara Configurator app. The phone itself will consist of three layers: an endoskeleton (the frame), the module outer shell. First you will need to specify the desired components (over time, the app will support third-party stores), then the program will check them for compatibility and will show the appearance of the resulting smartphone. At the end with the help of additional tools like the Shell Maker API, you can create a unique design for the shell models. For example, inflicting on her own photo. Or just paint to your taste.

In the future the developers plan to add in-app special Advisory service which, based on your preferences and behavior on social networks will help you gather the most suitable for you smartphone. For example, will offer the most suitable camera module, or talk about the presence of additional sensors that will be useful to avid travelers.

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Once again let me remind you that Spiral 2 is just the first example of a smartphone based on a modular platform. This is nothing more than an early and very careful about the outline of a modular phone, which is a dream to Google. If we were talking about games or software, it would be called the first alpha version that implements only a small part of the plan. It is unlikely the device is waiting for some kind of commercial success – Yes, Google him and do not expect.

If for a moment forget about the existence of Project Ara itself and try to assess Spiral 2 itself, then all will rest in the first place, the price of the device. Which at the moment is still to be announced. It is clear that the proposal is in any case a niche, but with the low price (and the prospects for a little bit to improve the smartphone afterwards) some kind of audience he will have. Well, and signature covers to him would not hurt – after all, the appearance of the device is quite specific, and when, how and which countries will operate the service to customize the appearance of the shell modules is not yet clear.

It is Difficult to say what will become of Project Ara in a couple of years, because this project is still a long way to go. And if the arguments about Google's open ecosystem – not just nice words, then we can expect so much more interesting.

So, over time, to modular smartphone certainly you can choose not only the physical components but also the OS. Although Google is unlikely to be from this great delight, as it is now not very excited about the brand manufacturers skins on Android. But openly resent unlikely. All sorts of Firefox OS for Android – all one not rivals, but iOS there install and so nobody will.

Moreover, such projects already have. For example, the program ARP from the company Vsenn. In this company rightly believe that changing the firmware or reinstall the OS should not lead to the loss of warranty on the device itself. Exactly the same as installing Windows or Linux does not deprive you of the warranty on the laptop. Buying a smartphone, the user has the full right to decide what version of the OS for him to work in it.

Now representatives of the company actively communicate with the community to find out what firmware and operating systems are for users of greatest interest. At the moment, already announced support for Sailfish OS, Firefox OS and Ubuntu. Will custom Android firmware like SyanogenMod – the main thing that was stable and not lag.

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I wouldn't be surprised if modular smartphones will become as familiar standard, like stitched on textile factory clothing. Even now it's pretty hard to believe. Of course, designer smartphones will remain, but will cost significantly more expensive – buying them, the buyer will pay not so much iron, how much for the brand and unique design.

And there is nothing to worry. At the dawn of the first factories was thought that any sane person has to order clothes from the tailor. And the idea that the clothes may not be sewn to a specific person, and pre-manufactured for any standard size, and looked just wild. It seemed that no one would wear this prefabricated? And nowadays it is the norm, and while the tailors did not disappear, the vast majority of people are quite satisfied with the ready-to-wear.

In addition, do not forget that Project Ara is not the only project of a modular mobile devices. From time to time about the plans to create your own modular smartphone to report a variety of manufacturers. Not the fact that their idea will immediately come something worthwhile, but the interest in this direction is very significant.

As example is the smartphone Puzzlephone, which is the Finnish company Circular Devices. Unlike the Google device, this smartphone modules do not change one by one, and blocks. At the top of the replaceable are the processor and camera module. At the bottom – the battery and some extra sensors. Other elements, such as speakers or a screen built into the body of the smartphone and will not be replaced.

On the one hand, from the user's perspective, such a division seems not very logical. For example, why do I need to change the processor if I want to install on your smartphone a better camera? And why should I buy a module with a whole bunch of different sensors, if all I want is to replace the battery? And the price of such units is unlikely to be low, which completely kills the idea of free customization of the device.

On the other hand, you need to understand that few producers has the potential Google. And if the search giant can afford to invest in some revolutionary, but extremely complex from a technical point of view, the projects, others will prefer to upgrade existing solutions rather than developing new ones from scratch. Moreover, this approach allows to preserve more or less the usual design of the device, without scaring buyers "tile" design Project Ara, which is a mix between the Lego brand and the Windows Phone interface.

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Another example of a modular mobile device – Crossfire Pro tablet, which runs over the company Entegra Technologies. However, he focuses primarily on corporate users, workers, and military personnel who need a portable computer for work in the field.

The tablet can be connected different peripherals (keyboard, joystick to control the drones), additional sensors (magnetic card reader, NFC-module unit with biometric sensors) and other components (for example, the carrying handle or additional fasteners). If necessary you can even replace the whole computing unit.

The Operating system also can be choose to your taste – it can be Android, Windows or Linux.

As Puzzlephone, this device is a little like the Google project. But this is another example of modular devices, which every day becomes more and more.

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How do you feel about the idea of modular smartphones? If you liked Spiral 2? What should be done in Google such that you decided to buy such a device? The first time I caught myself thinking that in a year or two, when the sale will be a more Mature version of this device, I could consider it for purchase as a new smartphone. By the time time it will become clear how serious Google is about this, how many modules-the components and how stable it all will work. The design, of course, peculiar. But I can't say that strongly repulsive. Other devices and without any modular system looked strange, but their customers, however, found.


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