project ara

project araIs a modular revolution underway for tomorrow’s mobile gadgets? Here’s how this technology might influence the smartphone scene, and the app industry as a whole.

We tend to think of the field as being wide open and full of possibilities, but the reality is that the mobile devices available to consumers today can be limiting and static. New gadgets may offer a refreshed aesthetic or feel, but as David Pierce writes for Wired, they offer little in the way of unique features or customization.

When not competing in the arenas of relative beauty or sleekness, other phone models are often unwieldy one-trick ponies: the Lumia 1020 is great for taking pictures, but aside from this feature, it’s little more than an oversized cell phone. What’s more, new versions are released every year, compelling consumers to go out and buy a costly new mobile device — often for no other purpose than to keep up-to-date, or to replace shoddy, made-to-break devices.

This is where modular technology comes in. “In the near future, you’ll be able to build a smartphone to your exact specifications,” Pierce writes. “Even better, you’ll be able to change the configuration after you buy it.” The premise with modular mobile phones is that people will be able to buy a “base plate” and then continuously modify their phones based on their specific needs, snapping on and off modules like LEGOs.

Project Ara

Many don’t have the funds to purchase a new phone every year, but Pierce explains that this modular revolution will ensure that the latest update is within everyone’s reach: “Much of the world can’t afford to upgrade even the cheapest phone every couple of years, but modular gadgets can turn upgrades from a major expense to a minor tweak.” The most basic model of Project Ara, Google’s ongoing modular phone project developed by the company’s Advanced Technology and Products branch (ATAP), is predicted to sell for as little as $50 (although the higher-end model will sell for significantly more).

Ara, which has gone down a rocky and lengthy road to development, is now slated to be released to the public sometime later this year. At its root, Ara operates like a standard Android smartphone, but the ability to add and subtract modules allows for a seemingly endless array of customization possibilities. The phone will come in three sizes: mini, medium, and jumbo. Modules attach to the phone via electro-permanent magnets and latches, and can be engaged and disengaged from the phone via an app.

The advent of the modular mobile device will open up a whole new third-party module development marketplace akin to what Google Play does for apps. The official Ara website states that developers of the modular phone want to foster “an open marketplace to connect the next generation of ideas with the broader Ara community.” Pierce writes that potential Ara modular products could include speakers, flashlights, kickstands, projectors — and even some attachable, purely aesthetic pieces that serve no actual function apart from looking nice.

More Modular Developments

While it has garnered much attention, Ara isn’t the only modular mobile device on the block — LG and Motorola are also making forays into the technology. And modular tech goes beyond phones, too: Australian company One Education is currently working on a laptop/tablet hybrid called Infinity-One, which can run Linux, Android, or Windows, depending upon which module is plugged in.

But the future of this technology isn’t all sunny. Ara hasn’t had the smoothest path so far, and the Fonkraft smartphone, an earlier modular mobile project, was pulled from Indiegogo before it could ever reach the public.

Analyst Dr. Richard Windsor explains that modular technology faces a whole host of unique challenges. Programmers must learn to feature swappable, un-integrated components while still keeping costs down, ensure that the different modules all function properly when attached to the same device, and keep modular mobile devices from becoming overly bulky. Even proponents like Pierce admit that modular gadgets, while clearly functional, may not be the most aesthetically pleasing things in the world.

While the future of modular mobile devices remains uncertain, the technology could potentially have a profound influence on the way mobile apps are built moving forward. Modules open up a whole new array of app possibilities, and will also surely bring with them a whole host of new challenges. Stay tuned to these developments and find out to how get started on your own app with Infinite Monkeys’ DIY app creation software.

(Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr)