I had exactly half an hour with four people from the Project Ara team at Google I/O to extract as much information as I could about the mission to actually launch a modular phone. So I rattled off as many questions as I could at a rat-a-tat pace, and the Ara team had answers for nearly all of them.
Not every answer will please the people who have been waiting for this modular phone for several years now, but nearly all of them make sense from a business perspective. If there's one thing I took away from my time, it's this: the goal is to turn Ara into a real business inside Google.
And if Google can pull off the phone business, it will want to expand the Ara module ecosystem into other areas, too.
Ara is going to be the first ever phone that Google is making itself (it has already made laptops and a tablet, among other things). And even though what I saw last week was just a prototype, it was working well enough that I believe Google can fulfill its promise to release a consumer product next year. Yes, we've seen Google kill off hardware before, but this is a high-profile launch from a newly independent division. It's the first truly big swing from Google's new hardware group under Rick Osterloh, and to back off now would be a colossal embarrassment.
Given all that, really the only questions that matter are simple: Is Google really making a phone? Will this plan to make it modular really work this time? Is this more than just an experiment?
Coming out of the meeting, had I shaken a Magic 8 ball, it would have said, "Signs point to yes."
Taking any product from concept to real product involves compromises. And when the concept is as grandiose as the early plans for Project Ara, there's going to be more parts than usual left in the lab.
The original dream for Ara was to modularize everything from the screen to the processor to the camera. For the developer version shipping later this year and the consumer version shipping next year, however, some key components are going to be baked in to the frame of the phone: the screen, some basic speakers for the phone, and the processor and RAM.
That's caused no small amount of disappointment amongst the geeks who were most excited for Ara — we do love to upgrade, you see. But according to the Ara team, after "lots of research" they found that most users "couldn't care less about it" and that "most people didn't know what their processor was or did." (Do they not teach that in school anymore?)
The Ara team also claims that integrating these key components leaves more room for other modules. Ara plans to ship with six slots for modules — four if you use two double-sized modules. "If you modularize everything," they argue, "there's very little space for stuff that is really different and innovative."
While I don't doubt the user research, the decision they made based on it has changed the tenor of the Ara project. Instead of a basic "endoskeleton" that you can buy once and upgrade forever, Ara is now a good phone (I assume) that lets you swap in all sorts of extra hardware functions. That's still a very ambitious vision, but a slightly different one. The new focus is on the crazy stuff you can add on to these phones.
There are other notable changes with Ara, at least compared to what we've heard before. The original plan was to use powerful magnets to hold the modules in place and wireless, capacitive interconnects to get them communicating with the frame. In their place, Ara is going with physically connected pogo pins and an electronically actuated latch.
In our interview, I suggested that this was an example of another compromise, that the current plan for the modules is only 80 percent of what Ara was originally aiming for. Rafa Camargo, who runs Project Ara, wasn't having it: "No, I think we're doing 120 percent of the original vision." He points to how Ara is keeping the super-fast Unipro network standard and creating more software that sits underneath Android, called Greybus.
Plus, those new connectors are made with a shape-shifting "nitinol memory alloy," Camargo says. "So when you pass a current, it actually contracts and you can do mechanical things with it — but now I can control electronically, which means I can control it from software." That enables the magic of ejecting the modules from a software screen (or by saying "Okay Google, eject the camera") with fewer breakable moving parts. It also takes up less space inside the module, giving developers more to work with.
The mechanism enables something else: locking the modules down — both literally and metaphorically. The team tells me that users will be able to set a passcode to keep people from ejecting modules. But the metaphorical sense of locking down is perhaps more interesting; all modules will be approved by Google and without Google's code, they physically won't connect to Ara.
"There's no gray market opportunity," a member of the Ara team says. "It's all coded within there." Instead, the market for selling modules will run through Google, which will sell the modules in addition to approving them. And it will take a cut too, but Google assures me it won't be a big cut, so as to not drive away developers: "Obviously, if we took high margins, it wouldn't be attractive to them."
As for who those developers will be, Google is starting with a respectably sized list of partners: Panasonic, TDK, Wistron, E-Ink, Toshiba, Harman, Samsung, Sony Pictures, and some health companies. Some of these companies will create obvious phone things: bigger speakers, extended batteries, and E-Ink displays. Some of them will create not-so-obvious things like glucose meters, for example.
Google is also going to make some modules, though all we know of for sure right now is that it'll be making some "fashion" plates that simply customize the look and feel of your phone. They're experimenting with plastics, wood, and concrete. Yes, real concrete. It's a whole new spin on "bricking your phone," I guess.
During our conversation, a couple of words kept coming up: "fashion" and "brands." According the Ara team, there's a lot of high-end "fashion and beauty" brands that are interested in producing modules for Ara (though Google will handle most of the electronics development). And because Google is controlling the software for the latching mechanism, the company is able to assure those brands that there won't be knock-offs.
Google wants users to be able to configure a nice-looking Ara phone — even though they won't be able to have complete control over the look of every single module shell anymore. So Google is also going to be enforcing some aesthetic standards to ensure that users won't end up with a "NASCAR phone." Brands will be able to put their logos on modules, but only in small, tasteful ways.
Even though all module roads run through Google, the Ara team insists that it's still creating an "open platform" that anybody can develop on. There will be a module development team that will help developers figure out how to make new hardware.
The sum of all this? Project Ara isn't just about this developer phone or the first consumer phone — it's about opening up a whole new hardware ecosystem and partner platform for Google. Instead of being a complete Wild West, it'll be run through Google. That may be disappointing to those who want Google to be radically open in every conceivable way, but working with partners seems to be the new modus operandi for the company — especially when it's in the early stages of a product.
And building that hardware ecosystem with partners means that Ara can look to the thing that comes after the phone — and it's more than just another phone. Camargo says that as the module economy grows, he expects that other companies might be able to build frames that could run them. And not just phone frames, either. "There will also be innovation on form factors," Camargo says. The team is looking hard at enterprise applications.
A Google phone, through and through
If (and it's no small if) it pans out, these modules could be a universal way to add hardware functionality to anything. You could buy one really great camera module, then use it in your phone, your tablet, your doorbell — whatever.
It's remarkable that this is the first Google phone, not a Nexus manufactured by a partner. It didn't have to go that way, Google could have spun Ara out into an entirely separate company or simply killed it off. But after speaking with the Ara team, a few things became clear to me about the strategy here:
- Of course Ara needed to be a division within Google — it was the only way the team could iterate quickly enough on the hardware and software guts underpinning Android.
- Of course Google is happy to have this be its first phone, can you imagine a more Google-y phone than one you can customize on the fly?
- Of course Google wanted to keep Ara rather than spin it of, because this phone is only a first step toward what I think is obviously the real goal: App-Store-ifying (technical term I just made up) hardware components.
My time was up before I could really dig into any of that, though. As I got pushed out the door, I snuck in one last question: "When people inevitably call this the 'Google Phone,' are you intending on embracing it or pushing back?"