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Google's Project Ara Is Challenging The Very Notion Of What A Smartphone Can Be

The company has quietly shifted focus from a modular smartphone you upgrade at will to a framework for "fringe features."

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Google's Project Ara has had an arduous road to market. It began in 2013 as a pie-in-the-sky concept: a Lego-like system for building smartphones called called Phonebloks. Phonebloks went viral, and soon, Google-owned Motorola announced that it was going to try to turn the project into a reality—under the codename Project Ara.

But the Google endorsement, along with the high production values of the original Phonebloks concept video, made modular smartphones look as though they're right around the corner. The truth is, modular smartphones have always been an insanely tricky problem—one which Phonebloks' own creator told us, three years ago, he doubted could be realized within the next 10 years.

That makes the work Google has done turning Project Ara into a reality all the more impressive. Under Google, Project Ara will ship dev kits later this year, and is looking to ship the first Project Ara smartphone to consumers in 2017: about half the time Phonebloks' creator originally thought it would take to bring a modular smartphone to market.

Yet at this year's Google I/O developer conference, the Project Ara team told me they have realigned the concept from an upgradeable consumer smartphone into a modular computing platform that challenges the very notion of what a smartphone can be.

The original promise of Project Ara was upgradeability. Instead of having to switch out your smartphone every couple of years, imagine if you could just switch out the parts that were important to you: a faster CPU, a better camera, or more memory. But over time, Google has shied away from promising the ability to upgrade all the components of your smartphone. In the latest model that the Ara team showed me, the core components on the smartphone—the screen, the modem, the CPU, and the memory—aren't removable at all. So instead of an upgradeable smartphone, Project Ara has shifted into a smartphone with modular expansion slots, for things like speakers, cameras, secondary e-ink displays, and more. You'd plug and unplug these modules on a daily basis as you need them, and while they'd soup up your smartphone's capabilities, none would be crucial to the operation of your smartphone.

According to Project Ara's Blaise Bertrand, there are a few reasons why Google decided to scale back from the original promise of total upgradeability. First, there was the concern that people would accidentally lose or leave their device's core components at home, rendering the whole smartphone inoperable. (The fact that switching out core components requires system reboots, and can cause kernel panics, doesn't help either.)

But the other reason, Bertrand says, has to do with the fact that we're edging up against Moore's Law. Computer upgrade cycles are getting slower, which means that what people increasingly want from their smartphones isn't so much more speed as it is more capability. "It's an interesting new paradigm," he says to me, holding up the Project Ara prototype and flipping it back and forth between the screen-side and the back, where the modules plug in. "The phone side, or the module side. What's more important to a smartphone in 2016?"

So Project Ara has realigned itself to challenge our concept of what a smartphone actually is. "It's hard to convince a major smartphone maker to bet their next flagship on fringe new features," says Project Ara chief Richard Woolridge. But those "fringe new features" might actually be features that millions of people could use. Take diabetes, for example. Twenty-nine million people in America alone have diabetes, and a sizable portion of them have to check their glucose levels on a daily basis. A Project Ara smartphone could do this for them for just the cost of an inexpensive, third-party snap-on module, but what are the chances that, say, Samsung will announce the Galaxy S8 Type II Edition anytime soon? Slim to none.

Accessibility is another exciting way Project Ara could make a sizable difference to the non-nerd contingent. Blind users could snap a braille display on the back of their smartphones to be able to read what's on the screen, no matter where they are. Android already supports third-party physical switches (like buttons for "select" or "back"), so that mobile devices can be navigated by people with poor motor control. Project Ara could embed those buttons right into the device. These kinds of features, Woolridge points out, would never make it into a conventional smartphone, yet they are absolutely critical for the 1 billion people in the world who experience some form of disability.

But even for the 6.125 billion humans without a disability, the promise of Project Ara is to change the definition of smartphones, tablets, and other computing devices. Do you love listening to music outdoors? Jam six speaker modules on the back of your smartphone, and you can suddenly out-blast any boombox. Are you a gamer? Project Ara could give your smartphone built-in buttons and a D-pad. Shutterbug? Snap four cameras to your smartphone, and let Android stitch them together into an SLR-quality image.

But those are just conventional ideas. Why couldn't a smartphone, for example, have an embedded pillbox, a built-in compact, a high-powered microscope, a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet, or even something as crazy six robot spider legs? Project Ara opens up the door to all of those things.

True, Ara has distanced itself—mostly out of necessity—from the notion that every smartphone can be as upgradeable as a desktop PC. But that idea was never all that interesting anyway. Far more interesting is Project Ara's new scope: making the black mirrors in our pockets exciting again. And after that? The ultimate vision for Project Ara is you might pop one of its modules out of your smartphone, and into your car dash, or your smart refrigerator, or even a watch band. Smartphones, says Bertrand, are just the beginning. "If you can make modular computing work on a smartphone, you can make it work anywhere."

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