The building, which houses the division of advanced technologies and products Google (ATAP), does not reveal anything happening inside. Pirate flags in the toilet. A large pointer reminding ATAP employees to always wipe the board after the meeting. Wired correspondent, one of the most authoritative technologists of the Western world, was invited to get acquainted with the secret, but very promising development of Google (however, like others). It was not long before the Google I / O conference that took place last week. Further from the first person.
Rick Osterlo, the newly hired hardware boss at Google, left the building to greet me with a big smile, but even he did not let me in.
In the end, I’m escorted to the conference room. White boards are clean, except for a separate phrase, which was written by something permanent: Aim High (“Take Up”). Dan Kaufman, the former director of innovation at DARPA and the newfound head of ATAP, sits at the table with three men responsible for one of the most ambitious ideas inside the factory of ambitious ideas of Google: Project Ara, a modular smartphone. Ask someone, so Ara will one day be either the future of phones – an eternal, absolutely personal device – or an impossible dream.
More than a year has passed since Google showed Ara in public, and since then much has changed . But not the mission: to create a smartphone from interchangeable parts, which can be replaced on the fly, depending on what you need at the moment. Add a module with a wide-angle camera for the duration of the trip. Put a telephoto and a larger battery for the duration of the football match. Replace the display with a display with electronic ink to read during a long flight. The idea is to change the modules in order to extend the life of the smartphone – the device will live five years instead of two – and reduce the losses caused by the need to upgrade.
The problem was not what, but how. Today Rafa Camargo, technical manager of the Ara project, wants to show me what he did. He takes the black phone from the white table in front of him, turns it over and presses the power button. He turns on. Then he takes the camera module from the table, slams it on the phone, opens the camera application and takes a clear shot. “Here’s a live camera,” says Camargo.
Just a second. Feel what smells? Working! After several years of unsuccessful demonstrations, public grumbling and anxious silence, Ara works. About 30 people in ATAP use Ara as their primary phone. Camargue is more concerned about aesthetics than about whether he will turn on or not. “Please do not pay attention to its appearance,” he says, twirling a rectangular smartphone in his hands, “because it’s a prototype.” This is not a concept, not an idea, not a video on YouTube. This is a prototype. Kits for Ara developers will begin to be distributed at the end of this year, and the version for users will be released in 2017. “We have already created all the key components for the platform,” says Camargo. Ara is no longer an experimental part of ATAP: it got its own unit in Google. It remains to be seen whether there is enough room for another revolution in the field of smartphones.
Find where to start
Google wants to launch innovation in the field of smartphones, creating an ecosystem in which everyone can make their contribution. Mobile technology is the largest technology platform in history, but to enter it, you need either resources and experience, like Apple or Samsung, or you need to be persuasive enough to persuade Apple or Samsung to rely on your technology. “Now everything in the market lives on the principle of creating cool products that are made for you, they say, it’s what you need, right?” Says Blaze Bertrand of ATAP.
Ara can break it all by breaking your smartphone into parts: you do not have to buy one thing every two years, you will need to buy dozens of replacement parts when you need it. You can buy a better speaker or a better camera. But something in the development of Ara went wrong. After last year’s Google I / O, everything was covered with a copper basin, and, except for a few scraps tweets on the theme of Ara, the photo taken at the conference then was the last one to be seen.
Since then, Pavel Eremenko, the team leader, left Google. Like Regina Dugan, who left ATAP to run something like Facebook. Google reorganized and strengthened its hardware in the person of Osterlo. The Ara team began testing again and again. And then an important decision came: instead of turning every single piece of phone into a module, from the processor and RAM to the hard drive, they decided to consolidate it all on a standard frame. It turned out that people do not care what processor is in their phone. And they especially do not want to sweat, whether it is compatible with all applications. People just need a good phone with good specifications, which works well, and they will just sometimes experiment with its components.
Version Ara for developers, Ara Developer Edition, will begin shipping at the end of this year in the form of a 5.3-inch smartphone is quite high-end. You can get it out of the box, turn it on and use it as a normal Android smartphone. A big, thick Android smartphone with a bunch of weirdly exposed ports, but nonetheless normal.
The details necessary to create a good smartphone are quite cheap and fully commercialized; instead of the “screen” as a module, now “parts of the phone” will be the starting point.
Over the past year or so, the team has also developed standards for modules so that developers can actually begin to create them. It was important to redesign the connectors on the back panel. Each of them had to maintain a constant connection and reconnection, be charged during power from the network and, at least, not to break. They created a proprietary port that uses the open standard UniPro. Chapter Ara Richard Waldridge says that the specifications of this standard allow you to cope with any task. And it consumes three times less power than USB 3.0.
Click the button on the right side of the phone – the card of all your modules will open, then tap on the picture of the module you want to remove and turn your phone over. After a moment, the module will be removed. Or, as the Camargo does, you can say: “Okay, google, take out the camera.” Operations with the software prevent mechanical incidents or accidental problems, and even allow the use of a password to protect sensitive modules. To add a new one, simply insert it.
All this leads us to the most important issue that still faces Project Ara: what kind of modules will people build? Woldridge and his team took their experience at the MWC conference in Barcelona in February, where they showed potential partners: telecommunications operators, technology companies, fashion brands, everything.
It turns out that everyone has ideas. Loudspeakers are better, flashlights, alarm buttons, fitness trackers, projectors, application shortcuts, coasters, a bunch of other things. Some of them are incredibly high-tech – for example, high-end cameras. Others admire the ability to replace a dull microphone with a normal microphone module. Bertrand showed me a compact module for storing cosmetics. They also create “stylish” modules that do not do anything, but they look cool. Apparently, when people are given the opportunity to connect something to their phone, they have very useless ideas.
And this is normal: this is the essence. The sphere of smartphones has not seen the real experiments and novelty for many years. The stakes are so high, and the scales are so large that no one can afford to take risks. With Ara, the whole sphere can return to the stage of experiments to understand what else can work.
Ultimately, the modules are much more important than the frame to which they will be attached. The first device Ara is a smartphone, because it is the biggest market. But Camargo reminded me that there is nothing more than the smallest module that is now the size of a cud and that can be an Ara device. The Ara tablet does not seem like a crazy idea, just like the tiny device Ara for Internet stuff. Anything that can be with a connector is suitable. “This allows us not to depend on the form factor.”
Now the smartphone, of course, is something. While we’re talking, Bertrand is driving me another Ara phone, a non-working prototype, which is more like what they want. He is still fat and cumbersome, but Bertrand is sure that their goals are transparent and understandable. This device has a blue back panel, which can be replaced, and with a dozen modules from which you can choose. Screens, cameras, color module of concrete, an image of someone’s dog. I’m beginning to understand the options, trying to figure out what will suit me personally. Of course, I need a camera. And the display of E Ink is also steep. But I do not want to clog the frame, so I insert two wooden modules to look beautiful.
Before I was given this phone, Bertrand set it up completely differently. The next one will also create something completely different. Thousands of possible combinations. If the Ara team releases all possible modules, as planned, there will not be two people who will create identical smartphones.
Project Ara has come a long way, but the biggest test will begin at the end of this year. Wooldridge does not know how many versions for developers will be sold, but expects a lot. It will be a first-class device, at least initially, because they feel that the market needs a strong kick in the ass. There is still much work to be done on design, software, branding and the construction of the ecosystem. And people are needed. But it turned out something interesting.