We've spent a lot of time this past year wondering if and when Google would bite the bullet and just build its own Android phone for consumers to take on the iPhone directly — there have been hints and leaks, but nothing real. And in true Google fashion, the reveal was nothing like what we expected — the company announced today that it's moving the ambitious Project Ara modular smartphone team out of the ATAP research lab and into its own proper unit within Google, under new hardware chief (and former Motorola president) Rick Osterloh. And a consumer Ara phone is coming in 2017 as well, which marks the first time Google has ever built its own phone hardware — the company's Nexus phones have been built by partners like Huawei, LG, and HTC.
Google showed off a working prototype version of Ara today, which lets you live-swap hardware modules like cameras and speakers onto a base frame which contains the core phone components — you can even say, "Okay, Google, eject the camera" to release modules, which is pretty cool. It has six modular slots — each one is generic, so you can put any module in any slot, and they're all linked up through new open standard called Unipro that can push 11.9 gigabits of data in both directions. (There's a bunch more details in this Wired piece from notable Verge expat David Pierce, which you should read.)
A consumer version of the Ara phone will ship in 2017
The developer version of Ara will ship this fall, while the consumer version will hit sometime in 2017. And developers can sign up to build Ara modules now.
Is this Google's only consumer smartphone plan, or is there more to come? Modular smartphones have long been a dream, and while the "Friends" system in the LG G5 was a first step, the execution was somewhat uninspiring and it doesn't seem like it's going to really make a dent. But if Google can get Ara right, it'll be one of the first big steps towards the next generation of smartphones we've seen in a long while. That's one way to take on the iPhone.