Would you like to build your own modular phone? Google is betting that enough people will, and the tech giant has released a video offering an update on its Project Ara effort to do so.
The video was shot by Dave Hakkens, whose Phonebloks has also been involved in the quest for buildable phones. In the video, various members of the tech and design team -- engineers from Google and partnering companies -- give a brief description of their roles. There is also a look at the prototypes, including an early view of how the modular pieces are held together once they slide into the exoskeleton phone framework -- through electro-permanent magnets that do not require an electrical charge to remain magnetic.
Several different exoskeletons are shown in physical or graphical form, including one that is the size of a mini-tablet, or "phablet." One of the exos appears to hold nine modules, and another a half-dozen. Also shown is an Ara Configurator App, which allows users to configure an Ara phone.
The video's release comes shortly before the first Ara Developer Conference, scheduled for April 15 and 16. The Conference will be held in Mountain View, Calif., and will be Web-streamed.
There have been reports in Time magazine and elsewhere that Google is looking to sell the exoskeleton or "grayphone" for about $50. It would contain bare-bones essentials, including possibly the physical frame, a screen, and Wi-Fi connections. Users might get one at special kiosks, where they might also acquire popular modules. There are indications that Google is intending to have modular phones on the market in about a year.
Google announced in late January that it was selling its phone maker, Motorola Mobility, to Lenovo, but it kept Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. ATAP is led by Regina Dugan, ex-director of the Pentagon's legendary Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Project Ara, which Google announced last October, is one of ATAP's endeavors. The main idea, Google has said, is to make smartphone hardware customizable and open source, just as it has done with its Android open-source operating system -- now the most popular platform on the planet.
Inventors or Customers?
Ted Schadler, vice president at industry research firm Forrester, told us that Project Ara and similar modular efforts, such as Phonebloks, resembled other open-source, user-generated communities, like the Raspberry Pi credit-card-sized computer, the online environments built by users in Minecraft or the early days of the personal computer.
The movement brings together "a lot of energy from people who are inventors or hobbyists," he said, with "ideas that trigger other building blocks." Because the community developing the components is potentially infinite, Schadler noted, so are the potential number of use cases.
Schadler also pointed out that we're talking about a smartphone, a highly personal item that lends itself to this kind of individuality.
But, while the intensity and inventiveness of module creators might be huge, and the communities themselves might have many participants, Schadler said it "still comes down to a very small number of people."
"This is for inventors, not for customers," he said.