We've been covering the idea of a modular smartphone for a while. Initially there was a concept called Phonebloks created by the designer Dave Hakkens that was a fully modular smartphone where all components could be repaired, replaced or upgraded separately, and fit together like LEGO pieces -- basically an eternally improvable phone that would cut down on the e-waste generated by the current market of yearly or bi-yearly phone upgrades.
After that, Google announced plans to bring such a phone to the market and called it Project Ara and years later, Google has announced that the modular smartphone will finally be released next year. It will be Google's first phone, designed and manufactured by the tech giant.
The Android-powered phone will have a skeleton that houses all of the basic phone functions, including CPU, GPU, antennas, sensors, battery and display and then users can get creative with the modules they snap on and off. There is space on the phone for six regular size modules or 2 double-sized modules and 2 regular ones. The modules will include things like cameras, speakers, sensors and more.
Like an app store, there will be a marketplace for modules with an open API so that any developer can create a new one to be sold in the marketplace, after approval by Google. Google is also partnering with companies to develop a line of modules that will range from mundane things like an extra battery to more exciting things such as personal health and fitness monitors, glucometers for diabetics or air quality sensors.
The phone and modules are also supposed to be inexpensively priced so that it can be an accessible to people around the world.
Now, while all of this sounds pretty cool, the man behind the first modular smartphone concept says that Google isn't delivering what it initially promised -- a truly modular phone.
Hakkens wrote in a blog post:
“It basically means the Ara skeleton is a fully equipped phone with things like CPU, antennas, sensors, battery and display. The 6 little blocky modules on the back of the phone are just add-ons like better camera’s, speakers, scanners etc. Things to customise your phone, for fun.
It means your phone still gets obsolete after a while. What if your screen breaks? Well you still need to replace the entire phone. And after a couple of years it gets slow and you need to replace your entire skeleton.”
He also points out that the Google-run marketplace for modules creates a competitive environment amongst phone makers instead of a collaborative one. Apple and other companies may make their own modular phone and marketplace instead of having modules that work across all modular phones.
Hakkens explained, "If Google truly wants to make a phone for the entire world, they should collaborate with others and make an open standard owned by the industry. Not one company.”
In the end though, he gives Google credit for at least attempting a modular phone and getting pretty close to his original idea.
You can a short video by Google about the Ara phone below.