On the last day of I/O, Google's ATAP division has finally given us some firm details on when it will release a very real Project Ara modular phone. A developer edition running Android with a 5.3-inch screen is shipping this fall, while a consumer version of the phone will be available some time in 2017. To get your hands on a device this year, you have to head over to ATAP's dedicated Ara website and fill out the form indicating what type of module you'd like to develop for the phone.
Ara has come a long way since it was first demoed at I/O 2014. In fact, more than 30 people are now using Ara phones at Google as their primary device, according to Wired. Google has also decided to spin out Ara as another division inside Google, effectively "graduating" the project to indicate its a real business and a serious initiative for the company.
The phone technology is now integrated into the Ara frame
For the upcoming developer kit, the Ara team has been "working with a new set of technologies." The phone technology is integrated into the frame now, instead of being its own module. That would appear to mean parts like the CPU, battery, and display will not be immediately swappable, at least not with the first-generation version. That said, Ara now has six modular slots — each one is generic, so you can put any module in any slot. They're all interconnected via an advanced "Unipro" network. That standardization should help each module withstand being connected and disconnected constantly, as well as helping them charge when plugged in and simply not break from heavy use.
On stage, we watched an engineer put a camera module in and take a photo — all without rebooting the device. You can remove a module just by going to the settings app to select it for removal. Or say, "Okay Google, eject the camera." When that was demoed, the crowd went wild. All of the modules are now controlled directly via software. With a button on the side of the phone, you can bring up an overview of all your modules. This is designed to prevent any mechanical failures, and it also introduces the potential for password-protected modules, according to Wired. (Ara ran into some delays last year after a pilot program in Puerto Rico, supposedly to help perfect how the modules connected to the device.)
Ara modules could include cameras, displays, and projectors
The are a number of intriguing possibilities. Early development partners include Panasonic, TDK, iHealth, E Ink, Toshiba, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Samsung, all of which are working on modules for the phone ranging from displays to cameras. But there's also untested potential for add-ons like projectors, fitness trackers, lights, and improved speakers. Not to mention all the cosmetic upgrades a modular phone allows. The Ara team is calling aesthetic change-ups to its device "style" modules.
Whatever third-party companies end up creating, it will have to be intriguing enough to sell consumers on a radically different type of smartphone. An Ara device is as much a product of its parts as it as it a cohesive whole with a recognizable identity. Where it goes from there depends on what you want to do with it, and that's an exciting future even if it's a year away for everyday buyers.