Google to open scaled-back Project Ara to developers by end of year

23 May 2016

Developers keen to get their hands on the first developer kits for Google’s modular phone can expect to see the first models by the end of this year.

It’s been nearly three years since Google revealed its plans for Project Ara, a phone that looked to finally be bringing some innovation and creativity to a smartphone market that likes to play it safe, but not much was seen in the years that followed.

For those unfamiliar with the project, Google wanted to develop a phone that could be completely customisable from the ground up, with someone purchasing a base frame for a phone, and then buying individual Lego-like components and building it to their own specifications.

First model in Q4 this year

So, for example, if you want a phone that would be great for gaming, but you care little about photography, you could buy more advanced processors and ditch the camera entirely by picking up the right blocks.

The only problem is that, since its first reveal, there’s been considerable confusion as to what’s going on with the project as, despite once saying it was to trial the phone in Puerto Rico, Google then changed its tack, saying it would trial it in other US cities.

And now, it has finally revealed at its recent I/O conference, that a test version of the phone will be made available in Q4 this year.

However, it’s worth noting that the phone released later this year will have some considerable differences from the one announced nearly three years ago.

Not totally modular anymore

Remember the talk about changing out the processor for a faster one a few paragraphs ago? This idea is one that has been dropped because, according to the lead engineer on the project, Rafa Camargo, no one was interested in it.

“When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care about modularising the core functions,” Camargo said. “They expect them all to be there, to always work, and to be consistent. Our initial prototype was modularising everything… just to find out users didn’t care.”

Now, rather, it will launch with just four modular parts, including a speaker, a camera, e-paper display and a module for expanded memory.

While this might seem quite underwhelming given its original lofty ambitions, it’s hoped that, by opening up the phone to third-party developers, more advanced modules could be built far outside what was once thought possible on a smartphone.

‘People are going to build crazy stuff’

Speaking of opening up third-party development, Google’s head of creative and marketing of its Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) division, Blaise Bertrand, said: “We know that people are going to build crazy stuff, and that’s okay. In fact, we’re looking forward to this.”

Looking further into the future, Google and Camargo believe that it could also further open customisation of its frame from what it is currently based on, as well as modules.

As for when you and I can get our hands on the phone, Google said that the first commercial models will begin shipping sometime around the beginning of next year and will cost around the same as a flagship smartphone.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic