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A closer look at Google’s modular phone prototype

It's just an early prototype, but it works!

I just sat down with Rafa Camargo and several members of his Project Ara team to learn more about the modular smartphone — because there's a lot going on with this thing. The project, which many had assumed was on its way to being Spring Cleaned by Google is instead coming out in almost the biggest way possible: it's the first phone ever that Google is manufacturing itself, and it's going to be available to consumers next year.

We talked about a lot in our discussion, but for now I'll just share some quick thoughts and quick photos. One note on these photos: this device is very much still a prototype. Not only will the eventual consumer version look and feel way better, even the developer version that's coming out later this year is going to be a step up from the photos of what you're seeing here.

Ara is mechanically simpler and more complex than earlier versions. That's a weird phrase to write, but it's actually true. Camargo isn't trying to pull off some of the crazier ideas that we saw in earlier versions, like magnetic locking mechanisms and wireless capacitive communication from module to body, but in their place it's a system that will allow more space for modules and uses come clever hardware magic to protect the contact points for the connection.

Snapping a module in and ejecting it is crazy fun. Swapping in little hardware bits is just plain cool in a physical, geeky way. They let me try saying "Okay Google, eject the camera module" and it straight-up worked: a tiny latch inside the phone body moved when I set the phone on the table (face down) and the module released. And watching the camera pop up with a little jump was really satisfying somehow — you don't expect moving parts on a phone.

The battery on this prototype is hot swappable, too. Yup! Camargo opened up the bottom, pulled out the battery, and there was enough juice in the frame to just keep the phone running. It probably wouldn't last very long, but definitely long enough to put in a fresh battery, all without rebooting.

Putting the processor in the frame makes sense — for now. I'll have more to say about this later, but color me convinced that Google made the right decision in putting the main brains of the device on the frame itself instead of in a module. Yes, that means you can't upgrade it later, but for a first version it simplifies so many things that would otherwise be too complicated for the relatively aggressive launch schedule they've set for themselves.

The developer hardware kit is called "Springboard." Springboard isn't the name of a module, but of the early development kits Ara is using. I know this won't matter to anybody but me, but the original truly modular PDA was the Handspring Visor and its modules were called Springboards. There was another Handspring fan in the room when they told me about this, and we locked eyes and smiled.

It really works. As excited as I've been about this concept, I've always been equally dubious that Google could pull it off. And there's still work to do here — Google needs to ship, it needs to get module partners on board, it needs to make the whole thing a little thinner and nicer looking (but it'll never be thin so don't get your hopes up). Even so, if you had asked me yesterday if what I saw today would be this close to being ready to ship to developers at a large scale, I would have told you "No." It's nice to be surprised.

More on Monday — but for now, enjoy some photos from a conference room. And again — this is a very early prototype, so leaven any judgments you might make about the final product from this with a little charity.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified Springboard. The author regrets the error.

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