NEW YORK—If all goes smoothly, you'll be able to buy a Google modular smartphone next year.
A teaser video from the recently finished Google I/O developers conference shows people swapping the removable modules on their smartphone as they head to the beach, play music and sing songs. Google said an Ara kit for developers will be available this fall.
The news follow two years of delays since Google showcased a Project Ara prototype at its I/O developer conference in 2014.
The idea behind a phone made of removable modules is intriguing and potentially disruptive, while at the same time fraught with challenges.
The way Google explains it, you can slide any Ara module into any of its (up to) half-dozen slot and it just works. Ara’s frame houses the chips, antenna, sensors, battery and other key smartphone components.
The plug-and-play modules, built by Google’s phone partners (Samsung, Toshiba, Sony and others) are likely to include different types of cameras or displays, microphones, loudspeakers, music players, projectors, breathalyzer, extra batteries, thermometer, who knows what? Google says you can eject them easily, even in some cases with an “OK Google” command. Meanwhile, the slots on your phone potentially become valuable pieces of real estate for accessory makers.
A possible consumer benefit is that by purchasing certain modules, you might be able to easily modernize your phone without having to replace the hardware as often as you currently might.
On the flip side, though, there’s the added burden, such as it is, of having to carry, keep track of, and possibly lose those modules. Or have them fall out if the device gets dropped or damaged.
Google’s designers intend to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of that happening by securing modules with durable latches, connectors and electro-permanent magnets.
Project Ara’s origins stem back to the Advanced Technology and Projects team that was then part of Google-owned Motorola Mobility, and held onto by Google when it peddled the rest of Motorola Mobility to China’s Lenovo.
Motorola is expected to unveil its own new smartphones next month, including models built around augmented reality through what is known as Google’s Project Tango.
On the modular front, Google isn’t the only company taking inspiration from Mr. Potato Head. Earlier this year, LG launched the G5, a capable flagship but hardly a blockbuster, with a button you can pinch that lets you remove a bottom piece of the phone and slide out the battery and then slide in what is known as a Cam Plus camera or a high-fidelity audio player. LG's device is far less ambitious than what Google has in mind with Project Ara.
Such efforts are relatively early. But it seems a future smartphone will become as valuable as the sum of its parts. Or is it the parts of its sum?