About a year ago, Google announced the Ara, it’s first foray into building mobile phone hardware (Google’s Nexus is outsourced to Huawei and LG.)
After this announcement, silence.
The Advanced Tech and Products Division of Google, from which the Ara was supposed to emerge went even more quiet than it usually does – which is saying something. Employees within the ATAP are warned that their jobs are on the line if they mention anything about their work on social media, that they must clear all whiteboards after meetings, and to treat all strangers with suspicion. So since a grainy photo concept at last year’s I/O conference, nothing has been heard about how the Ara project was developing and when the world could expect it’s first Google-made phone.
Now, it’s here… nearly. The Ara has been showcased and will be available to developers later this year with a consumer launch in 2017. The reason for the lag-time? The Ara is a screen on the front, and on the back are 6 interchangeable plates. These plates can be swapped out by the owner, depending on what they want in a mobile phone. Conceptually, plates could contain panic buttons, professional level cameras, app shortcut buttons, and even makeup holders and style modules, that do nothing more than look good. The plan, according to Google, is to create a phone that allows for increased individualism and decreased environmental impact through allowing owners to maintain current technology without having to purchase a new phone – theoretically extending the life of the device from the current 2 year average to just over 5. And so Google, rather than shouldering the burden or coming up with ideas for plates, designing them, and building them, is creating an open marketplace where developers can create their own plates based on market requirement. By the time consumer release rolls around, speculatively in about a years time, there should be a healthy ecosystem of ever-changing modules available.
Importantly, the phone already works. Head of the Ara project, Rafa Camargo and around 30 other people within Advanced Tech and Products are already using the device as their primary phone. And aside from having limited modules available, initial media reviews are positive, most importantly from a functionality perspective. This is apparently where Google has been focusing most of their efforts, with one team focused entirely on the backplate, functionality, interchangeability and effectiveness of the interchangeable plates, and another team committed entirely to ensuring that consumers wouldn’t purchase the phone and end up discarding it in favour of an Apple or Samsung. Google’s hardware chief, Rick Osterloh knows a thing or two about this, he is the former president of Motorola and has seen first-hand the impact of half baked functionality in the mobile market. As an interesting side note, Motorola’s newly released phones have interchangeable extension modules that can attach externally to the rear of their phones, they also aim to produce an open market of developers around this.
Google has combined all of its functionality – saying “Okay Google, eject the microphone,” will release the module – and what will hopefully be a simple to use, intuitive smartphone. Showing awareness that the interchangeable modules will only prove to be anything more than a gimmick if developers are on board, is just as smart as we’d expect from Google, and now the race for mobile phone supremacy is truly on.