Are Modular Smartphones the Next Big Thing?

Project Ara

Google’s Project Ara wants to take the smartphone back to basics—literally.

With Project Ara, the smartphone is modular: The owner can swap out everything from the battery and screen to the speakers and cameras. The device’s endoskeleton holds those modules in place with magnets, meaning those swaps can take place without the need for a mini-screwdriver or other tools. In theory, you could duck into a store, purchase a replacement module for a camera or battery, and pop it into your phone in a matter of seconds.

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Customized modules could more effectively transform smartphones into highly specialized work devices, negating the need for expensive equipment. “You could have a village where there was a set of healthcare modules, and instead of somebody having to travel four or five days to get to see a doctor, they can at least decide whether or not they need to make that trip,” Derek Rinderknecht, senior scientist at Caltech, told the MIT Technology Review.

A modular smartphone would also allow cash-strapped people to upgrade their devices one step at a time, or improve only the hardware that mattered to them—a photography fan might want a cutting-edge 12-megapixel camera unit, for example, without buying a whole new phone. Depending on the modules purchased, a bare-metal endoskeleton could become a cheap, durable smartphone or a fashionable and expensive one: The possibilities are endless, provided enough developers and manufacturers join the program. (In Wired, Kyle Vanhemert also suggested that a market in secondhand modules could evolve into a sizable business.)

Google will host two more Ara Developers Conferences in 2014 (the first took place April 15-16), in which it will give a “detailed walk-through” of planned features for the platform, along with community-feedback sessions. There’s already a website where those interested in exploring Project Ara’s capabilities can download an early version of the Module Developers Kit (MDK 0.10); a software repository and partner links are coming soon. If the idea of modular smartphones really takes off, developers with working knowledge of the MDK could find themselves the pioneers of a whole new market segment.

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Image: Google