Most Wanted: Project Ara

Google’s hotly an­tic­i­pated do-it-and-up­date-it-your­self mo­bile is ready for de­vel­op­ers to get work­ing on. Things are about to change… Then change again

Australian T3 - - CONTENTS -

Google’s new smart­phone de­sign could be a sign of what the fu­ture holds

We’ve been look­ing for­ward in­tently to Google’s Project Ara for some time, now. A mod­u­lar smart­phone where you choose the com­po­nents, and up­date them as tech­nol­ogy moves on, it might just be the be­spoke, fu­ture-proof gad­get of our dreams. More likely, it’ll be a sort of smart­phone an­swer to Rasp­berry Pi, but that’s cool enough. This month we moved a step closer to find­ing out.

Google has be­gun ship­ping the MDK (that’s mod­ule de­vel­op­ers’ kit, not Mur­der Death Kill) to cherry-picked devs who suc­cess­fully ap­plied for the priv­i­lege. It hopes they’ll have com­po­nents ready for the first hand­sets, when they hit State­side shelves in Jan­uary 2015, at the com­fort­ably low price of US$50.

More so than with An­droid, where it’s pretty pro­pri­eto­rial, Google plans to be com­pletely hands-off with Project Ara, set­ting the sys­tem pa­ram­e­ters up, then leav­ing it for hard­ware and soft­ware de­vel­op­ers to do as they will with. Ob­vi­ously, once it’s been handed over to ex­ter­nal de­vel­op­ers, the search gi­ant will con­tinue to sup­port the ecosys­tem. At least un­til it gets bored and moves on to the next in­no­va­tion on its list…

Ara will be built around three dif­fer­ent sizes of “en­doskele­ton” – what Google calls the alu­minium base plates to which com­po­nents are added. A spine and ribs di­vide the hand­set into stan­dard­ised mod­ule spa­ces, each with an elec­tro-mag­net to snap mod­ules into place. A stan­dard elec­tri­cal bus pro­vides power and al­lows for data trans­fer.

The large, medium and mini sizes of the en­doskele­ton hand­sets cor­re­spond to the num­ber of sin­gle mod­ules that can be added: 28, 18 and 10 re­spec­tively – more pow­er­ful mod­ules will gen­er­ally take up more space on the grid. You’ll be able to have any­thing from an all-en­com­pass­ing hand­set cost­ing thou­sands, with the very lat­est up­grades, or a much smaller, sim­pler de­vice con­sist­ing of only the bare es­sen­tials at a frac­tion of the cost.

A par­tic­u­larly nifty idea is that Project Ara will al­low you to hot-swap mod­ules while us­ing the hand­set with­out hav­ing to turn it off first. The en­doskele­ton even in­cor­po­rates a small backup bat­tery so the main one can be swapped dur­ing use. While each phone will ac­cept only of­fi­cial mod­ules by de­fault, a quick change of the soft­ware set­tings means you’re good to go with third-party cre­ations.

What with this, Google Glass, self-aware cars, a ru­moured VR head­set, smart con­tact lenses and, to a lesser ex­tent, the lat­est ver­sion of An­droid, there’s no doubt that Google is the tech world’s pre­mier in­no­va­tion driver right now. Here’s hop­ing the de­liv­ery on Project Ara matches the boun­ti­ful prom­ise. US$50, pro­jec­tara.com, out in US Jan­uary 2015, Aus tralia TBC

Project Ara lets you slot com­po­nents of your choice into frames

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