back to article Google unleashes build-it-yourself 'Ara' slablet phones (in Puerto Rico)

Google will this year launch its modular DIY smartphone, dubbed Project Ara, but only in the US territory of Puerto Rico. Ara, announced by Google 15 months ago, was developed by Motorola's Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group as a fully modular system where components such as batteries, screens, GPS and cameras, …

  1. Message From A Self-Destructing Turnip

    Cool

    But I wonder who will be the first to mention android fragmentation... Oh bugger.

  2. Matt Piechota

    resell

    I wouldn't be surprised to see many of these resold to the states. I'd assume PR (being an American protectorate) would be on the same wireless standards as the mainland...

    1. Message From A Self-Destructing Turnip

      Re: resell

      If that's an issue I am sure a third part will come up with a compatible radio module in no time, unless Google has done something sneeky to prevent this.

    2. Anurion

      Re: resell

      I am so flabbergasted by your comment with that being said, next time you mention a protectorate or whichever it may be make sure you absolutely have your techs right. Tech is Tech. do the math. oh and i read this post while surfing of the north coast of Puerto Rico on my T-mobile network.

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: resell

        Yeah, every country uses the same technical standards.

  3. ratfox Silver badge

    No way, no how

    There's no way this can be made a success. Making the phones modular means it is easier to swap a part, but the total price of parts can only be more expensive than a standard phone containing the same pieces. So people who want a cheap phone will not buy this.

    On the other hand, people who want a luxury phone will never go for a mix and match which does not show how cool they are for owning the right brand.

    It's fun to play Lego™, and the technical problems are certainly very interesting; but I simply don't see why anybody would buy this.

    1. king of foo

      Re: No way, no how

      I want one. But, like Lego, think big. Modular smartphone, clickety, modular tablet, clickety, laptop, clickety, desktop, clickety drone, clickety nuclear warhead...

      1. Captain DaFt

        Re: No way, no how

        "Modular smartphone, clickety, modular tablet, clickety, laptop, clickety, desktop, clickety drone, clickety nuclear warhead..."

        And this is why it won't be a success, no matter how popular it is, the Law of unintended consequences.

        The instant someone figures out how to assemble the parts to do something it wasn't intended to do, more easily and cheaper than the 'proper' paid for solution, it's toast!

        1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          Re: No way, no how

          The instant someone figures out how to assemble the parts to do something it wasn't intended to do, more easily and cheaper than the 'proper' paid for solution, it's toast!

          I would think rather the opposite, especially if it becomes becomes a hit for the competitors of the dominant phone services.

    2. Graham 24

      Re: No way, no how

      If there's different costs for different qualities of component (battery life, screen resolution, camera image quality and so on) I can see it working.

      You sell a very cheap phone built using the lowest cost component of each type, and then periodically upsell the customer a whole new phone, bit by bit. For customers without much money, this is often a much better way to get them to spend with you. Also, once you've hooked them into the ecosystem with the base model, moving away becomes less attractive. Fed up with short battery life? Don't buy that replacement iPhone, S5 etc for $$$$, just buy this high-capacity battery for a few $. Repeat this a few times and the overall spend is actually greater than if they'd bought the high-quality phone in the first place (which they couldn't afford at the time, anyway).

      It's the "Vimes boots" theory of economics applied to phones.

      It also possibly creates a new market in component hire. Going to a wedding? Hire this hi-res camera component for your current phone for the weekend.

      1. Vinyl-Junkie
        Pint

        Re: No way, no how

        @Graham 24.

        Have an upvote for the very sensible point and a bonus ale for the mention of the Vimes' boots theory of economics!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No way, no how

      There's no way this can be made a success

      "... because I don't want one, and I can think of markets that this isn't suitable for, therefore it will be a flop."

      Gartner are hiring...

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: No way, no how

        There might be a market for a replacement screen, but an upgrade screen when yours works fine? What's the market for an upgrade battery in a world where many phones already have a replaceable battery, and those that don't can have a battery 'case' that adds capacity?

        I think it is unlikely to extreme that anyone will ever want to upgrade the wireless, cellular or GPS in their phone. Does anyone with a phone that does "only" wireless N want to pay to upgrade to wireless AC? If your phone "only" does LTE will you pay to upgrade to LTE Advanced? (assuming you actually have towers with it nearby)

        Just don't see the market for this. At all. It will cost more than the sum of its parts, so getting people to pay more for upgrade capability, whether they are buying on the low end, midrange or high end is gonna be really tough. I predict it disappears with a whimper and we never hear about it again.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No way, no how

          How many phones have people replaced when only the screen has cracked, or usb socket is dodgy?

          It's about time they've made phones modular rather than a single blob, and your phone could also be your tablet when you clip the 10" screen module on...

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No way, no how

          @DougS.

          Wow, that's quite blinkered... There are many possibilities for this that would suit many people. The great thing about Android is that there are many models of phone available to suit your requirements but every time someone complains that the latest phone doesn't have the Maxxx battery they wanted or the camera is rubbish.

          If you can decide whether that health monitor is important, or battery life or whether or a thermal camera, or night vision or xenon flash or LED is useful you can choose to have it. If you want a small form factor phone for camping trips and a larger one for use on holiday, you could do that. If are going on holiday and want a better lens on your camera and a bigger sensor (but at other times you don't need such a bulky unit) swap it out.

          There are plenty of peopl doing cutom add ons for phone but they all have to be strapped on or plugged into the headphone jack, or hang off the bottom using the usb port so the desire is there. You might even get a "normal" phone with a single module slot to add features.

          Whether people will buy it will depend on a lot more, but the opportunities are there.

          1. John 104

            Re: No way, no how

            @AC NO Way No How

            I like the idea of a module slot in an otherwise complete phone. Use it for battery most of the time, but swap it out for whatever if the need arises.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: No way, no how

            > Wow, that's quite blinkered...

            And I would add to that the most obvious innovation, that of being eminently repairable.

            Screen broken...new screen swapped in easily. Duff battery, just swap in a new one (something that is becoming increasingly difficult or impossible).

            This rush for progressively cheaper phones due to the phones being manufactured to be irreparable is a social evil that we need to stamp out.

        3. John P

          Re: No way, no how

          My last phone was a HTC One X, a great phone when it came out with good battery life, but successive Android updates rendered it unable to last a working day, otherwise I was satisfied with the phone. If had been able to just buy a new higher-capacity battery module for a reasonable price, I probably would've.

          The other reason I eventually went with the Lumia 1020 was for the excellent camera as my existing separate digital camera was no longer up to the job. Again, if I'd been able to just buy a better camera module for a reasonable price, I would've done that.

          Having the upgradeability that the Ara range provides for a reasonable price probably would've kept me on Android.

        4. NumptyScrub

          Re: No way, no how

          There might be a market for a replacement screen, but an upgrade screen when yours works fine? What's the market for an upgrade battery in a world where many phones already have a replaceable battery, and those that don't can have a battery 'case' that adds capacity?

          I think it is unlikely to extreme that anyone will ever want to upgrade the wireless, cellular or GPS in their phone. Does anyone with a phone that does "only" wireless N want to pay to upgrade to wireless AC? If your phone "only" does LTE will you pay to upgrade to LTE Advanced? (assuming you actually have towers with it nearby)

          I'd buy one*. My gaming desktop is a "grandfathers axe" machine, because I only upgrade the parts when they break or are no longer fit for purpose. The case is 15 years old, because sheet aluminium lasts for ever when stored indoors ^^;

          That works in exactly the same way as this phone; I have a chassis and I just purchase and install the bits I want as and when it becomes useful for me to do so. I might be an edge case, but I'm also definitely a market for that kind of device.

          *Caveat: as long as the APU / RAM and storage were also upgradeable, because there's no point adding ever more complicated bits to a processor that's already starting to struggle. I don't care if it is a single module containing all 3, I do care that I can throw more FLOPS (or RAM) at it when it inevitably slows down due to software "upgrades" hogging more resources.

    4. proud2bgrumpy

      Re: No way, no how

      I want one - for all the reasons you listed ;-) People like to tinker and differentiate - Sheeple do as they're told (and accept what they're given).

      Going on holiday? Fit your eInk screen and get 4 weeks battery life / Fit your zoom lens camera module

      Going to work? Remove your camera

      Driving? Fit your GPS module

      1. fruitoftheloon
        Pint

        @proud2bgrumpy: Re: No way, no how

        Have one on me, especially if the car gps unit could project the imagery onto the windscreen.

        There's an idea!!!

        J

      2. DougS Silver badge

        @proud2bgrumpy - "people like to tinker"

        As is all too typical here, Reg readers assume they are similar to the average person. Only a small fraction of people "like to tinker". The vast majority just want to buy a working product. How many people "tinker" with their PC and upgrade their own RAM or hard drive? About as many will want to replace bits of their phone.

        This would be at best a niche market. Google's engineers are always thinking they are representative of the average person, but they are not. That's why Glass was a flop, and why this will be too.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @proud2bgrumpy - "people like to tinker"

          Yes DougS, exactly the same was said about a "personal computer", probably the same was mentioned on a forum about 'smartphones'. Raspberry Pi was probably doomed to failure many times due to the fact that people don't want a computer they have to tinker with.

          Android was always slated that it is only for 'techy people'. The internet was only the domain of ComSci students.

          You underestimate a lot - firstly everyone can get the idea of "accessories" it is a massive market between everyone from kids to the aged. Then you have a bizarre idea that you have to be a top of your game, low-level engineer to understand swapping out a module (FFS!) and replacing it with another. You also highly underestimate the general tech competence of the general population. I know a secretary at work who recently asked if she could borrow some tools to replace a part on her iPhone after reading how to do it on the internet, she did it and it worked!

          You don't have to be a whizz kid to understand popping a module out of the phone and replacing it with a new one, I am pretty sure everyone I know could get the concept and complete the process.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: @proud2bgrumpy - "people like to tinker"

            I think DougS was talking more about intent than ability when he was replying to the generalisation "people like to tinker". Just because someone can do something (ability), it doesn't mean that they will (intent).

            1. DougS Silver badge

              Re: @proud2bgrumpy - "people like to tinker"

              Exactly right, AC.

              And claiming that owning a PC means you "like to tinker" is ridiculous. What percentage of people have EVER opened up their PC? What percentage of people are willing and able to even do something simple like swapping a failed power supply or hard drive?

              Raspberry Pi has sold only four million units since inception (based on a ZDnet article saying it hit that total three months ago) It is a geek only toy, not some widespread phenomena that indicates a groundswell of general public sentiment for tinkering!

              So maybe in a few years Google sells four million of these lego phones....is that enough for them to bother, or will they abandon it like it looks like they're abandoning Glass and have abandoned any number of things they started and decided to quit because it wasn't big enough to have an impact on their bottom line?

    5. fruitoftheloon
      Thumb Down

      @ratfox: Re: No way, no how

      I want one...

    6. paulc

      Re: No way, no how

      I would buy one... because then I could upgrade the ram, or upgrade the internal memory, or the processor or the display as better options come along... My pay as you go Galaxy S2 is fine, but could do with more ram, more internal memory, faster processor...

      I can't be jiggered with chucking the entire phone away and buying a new one every year or two... It's just not good for the environment.

    7. jzlondon

      Re: No way, no how

      I want one already.

  4. Teiwaz Silver badge

    Puerto Rico...

    There are a lot of tinkerers and people interested in unsual amd innovative design and willing to spend a couple of hundred on an 'experiment'?

    This is the kind of device that would be better suited to test marketing to a segment of the population not a region I'd say.

  5. Simon Buttress

    Trigger's broom

    ...but in phone form!

    1. Anonymous Bullard

      Re: Trigger's broom

      haha nice one, Dave!

  6. JassMan Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Connectors?

    Interesting that the inter-module connectors are different between the still and the video. Which is the one being released?

  7. Mark 85 Silver badge

    I get this nagging mental image...

    In the shop and buying one...

    Clerk: Round corners or square?

    Customer: Round.

    Clerk: That's $50 more.

    Customer: Why?

    Clerk: Apple owns the patent and they hate Google so the price is up.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New markets

    Exciting stuff. If it's successful this module design opens major opportunities for niche high value accessories. There's probably a fairly large market for stereo video, things like night / thermal imaging are nice but unlikely to take off.

    The two major breakthroughs I'm foolishly predicting will win the contest are:

    - "personality transfer": plug your module into your watch, laptop, desktop or laptop and transfer your world with you

    - Healthcare: Sensors cheap enough to become ubiquitous that will dramatically improve preventative care and large-scale statistical medical analysis.

    Whether Ara is too far ahead of the times, in terms of the overhead of the interconnect and packaging relative to where we'll be in another 5 years is debatable, but it's nice that somebody is willing to give it a shot.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: New markets

      - Healthcare: Sensors cheap enough to become ubiquitous that will dramatically improve preventative care and large-scale statistical medical analysis.

      You were trucking right along and making a good point until that one. When your health insurance company decides to "entice" you to have that option and keep turned on.. Then "you had a cigarette or were around someone who was smoking. Sorry, your rate just went up." or "You had an extra piece of cake (or beer.... or whatever). That's unhealthy, your rate is going up."

      Let's be careful what we wish for or predict what we'll want. Unintended consequences and all that.

  9. Timbo

    This modular idea is worth a go

    If only because once you have the basics of the phone, you can then add or change to the functions you actually need.

    I chose to move from my old reliable Nokia work phone 3 years ago and I got a Samsung Galaxy S2 phone and it's very good....it's still in use and does a fine job.

    But: The rear facing camera, despite being 8Mega pixels, is not that good. Likewise, it's not 4G...so it would be nice to swop a comms module to have 4G now....and it'd be nice to have a dual-SIM function too. I also don't use Bluetooth, nor GPS and who needs all those extra sensors, like an accelerometer ?

    So, being able to pick which things you want, seems a much better way of enabling people to have the phone and functions they actually want....rather than having things they don't need, but still have to pay for.

    Shame I need to change the entire phone to get something that better suits my needs. Of course, I could sell it and buy something else...but I'm sure I'd be out of pocket, as the functions I'd like are only found on the higher end, more expensive phones.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Build it and they will come...

    It's perfect for the tinkerers, such as myself, who are always modifying something, upgrading a component, even doing a completely new build. Sometimes it's a wonder here that any of my machines last as long as they do simply due to the constant stream of upgrades let alone the custom on-offs for virtualisation, gaming, media, whatever. That's why you'll find, for instance, hot-swap banks of SSD's in my machines. And that's the market, those who have needs not addressed by any of the functional equivalents of an All-in-One computers such as is the market in mobile phone/tablet technology today. That you may not find a need for this niche product only speaks to you.

    There's enough market today to support multiple niches of computing devices that opening another in this way actually makes sense. After all, exactly how many gamer video cards are individually sold in the nVidia and AMD ecosystems a year in comparison to OEM canned builds? As someone pointed out above, you can get away with charging a premium over the lifespan of the device in toto and that customer will be back again and again for that incremental improvement.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From a "wow cool" perspective I think this is great but from a practical day to day phone-that-lives-in-my-pocket point of view I'm not sold. The problem is that I like my phone (OnePlus One) the way it is, I have no desire to swap bits of it around. The only possible part of my phone I'd like to be able to swap easily is the battery but even that I don't care enough about to look for a phone with a replaceable battery.

    Realistically this modular system will result in a phone that is bulky compared to fully integrated phones and to reach the same spec level it'll probably cost a significant fraction more.

    Having said that the idea of being able to easily extend the functionality of a phone does have some legs. Imagine being able to pair it easily with a thermal camera (FLIR already sort of do this for the iPhone) or an ultra sound device. That would be cool but I think something more akin to a docking bay with expansion slots would be in order.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PC in you pocket

    Modular design looks like it could act like are old trusty PCs.

    They only need to open up the standards to multiple manufacturers then mean gaming slabs will follow. :-)

  13. ukgnome
    Gimp

    Speaking as a fanboi

    If this was for sale in the UK I would have to ditch my fruit.

    This is potentially the sort of innovation that the handset market needs.

    *gotta take a high res macro of some pollen - there's a podule for that.

  14. Dylbot

    The second this thing gets a QWERTY slider module I'll be on it like stink.

  15. Mike Moyle Silver badge

    Project Ara?

    Not Project Mondrian?

    Tsk.

  16. Cynical_Funk
    Coat

    Set it to vibrate, missus....

    Just wait till the adult industry starts selling modules for this thing.

    1. C Yates

      Re: Set it to vibrate, missus....

      eww, I hope it's going to be water-proof... @_@

      Moist towelette anyone? :)

  17. RyokuMas Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    It's kinda... logical

    Think about a serious photographer with all his lenses - I can see the same sort of thing happening for this. Normally, you just need a basic phone that fits in your pocket, but every now and then, you need your "better camera" module for a special event, or your "bigger battery" module for a long trip, maybe combined with your "game controller" module so you can keep the kids quiet in the back of the car...

  18. Christian Berger Silver badge

    We will see...

    So far the concept was geared towards fairly boring components. There's little use in swapping a camera as even cheap ones will usually do the job just fine. Same goes for CPU and memory. Those are all largely non issues.

    What would be interesting would be unusual peripherals, for example a proper keyboard, or things like an additional SDR.

    Also we'd need to have some proper way of enumerating those peripherals so we can, in the long run have a common hardware platform where we don't need system images ported to each and every device.

    Then, in the next step, we could have alternative operating systems for those mobile devices. You wouldn't be stuck with Android or whatever, but could run an actual Linux or *BSD on it.

  19. theOtherJT

    It's a cute project, I really don't see this working. What's the interconnect between all these parts? Let's assume the SOC lives on the backplane board - that's now the base of the phone, you're not going to change that. There's no way a phone uses a separate CPU / RAM / CPU all on discrete little boards, that would be nuts, so starting there you have the spec.

    Then what can you change?

    Storage: I already have a microSD card for that, and they're already dirt cheap.

    Screen: Well, good for replacement in the case of damage I suppose, but if you're planning on upping the screen resolution that's going to tax the GPU, which is going to be a fixed component.

    Camera: Is going to need a damn fast interconnect to the RAM if it's actually going to be any good... possible of course, but that's going to get costly pretty fast I would think.

    Battery: Well, I do like a changeable battery, but most people do already seem to have been conditioned to live without one, so it might not be a strong selling point.

    Speakers? Honestly, do we _really_ want people fitting their phone with bigger speakers? Really?

    Then what... there's not much left. The sim card is already removable, and likely to go software defined in the not _too_ distant future. The wifi / bluetooth / gsm / whatever else wireless is going to be baked into the SOC again. By the time you actually want to change any of those parts that are changeable the age of the SOC will be showing and you might as well get a whole new one.

    Just feels like a solution in search of a problem to me.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Puerto Rico

    I like the "relatively undeveloped".

    My information isn't that recent, but when I worked there briefly, PR had more telephone lines than the rest of the Caribbean put together. It also has an awful lot of tinkerers. It is poorer in terms of GNP per capita than any US State, but much better off than anywhere in the Caribbean or Latin America. And it's quite industrialised (pharmaceuticals, aerospace); this is not a tourism economy. On the other hand the economy is slightly in the doldrums.

    In other words, a fair number of people with science and engineering skills, a developed world disposable income, but people looking to save a bit of money. It could be the ideal test site.

    Most of the British Caribbean islands are shitholes for the locals, PR with its faults is a rather nice place and I suspect Google execs will need to go and check how the project is progressing. Where else can you go from a fair sized city through tropical rainforest to a dry sunny beach in under 100 miles?

  21. RISC OS

    google don't seem to be able to make products...

    ...that non-nerds want to buy... this will be no different.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: google don't seem to be able to make products...

      The fact that "Google" is a house-hold name and a verb, crushes your whine like an ant.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019