Google last week booted up a modular smartphone in public for the first time at its Google I/O developer conference. The demo almost worked, but the screen froze.

Project Ara freezes at Google I/O.

Project Ara almost boots up at Google I/O.

“The irony is it works 75 percent of the time, and it booted the last three times in rehearsal. Clearly, this was bound to happen,” Project Ara’s Paul Eremenko told Re/code after the session. Eremenko leads Ara as a unit of ATAP, Google’s crazy mobile development division modeled on the Department of Defense’s rapid prototyping unit DARPA, where he and his boss Regina Dugan both formerly worked.

The Ara team is trying to introduce the notion of interchangeable parts to phone hardware. They want consumers to be able to choose and swap out cameras, batteries, and other smartphone components rather than relying on those predefined by handset manufacturers, which often make upgrades impossible.

But for Ara to catch on, it will have to do more than simply boot up. It will have to be cool and sexy, and do things other smartphones can’t.

In a hotel meeting room around the corner from I/O, Eremenko pulled out a slim black cardboard box the size of a piece of paper and only an inch or so deep. “I brought the industrial design models,” he said. “I didn’t bring the electrical prototype because I was afraid you might make me boot it up.”

Inside the box were two sleek teal and white metal phone mockups — one the size of a standard smartphone, the other a small skinny version that might be for “when you go clubbing,” Eremenko said. Each Project Ara phone consists of the “endo,” a skeleton with preset slots for inserting modules, and the modules themselves, which look a bit like flat pieces of blister-packed gum.

To whatever extent possible, everything in Ara is interchangeable. Even the device’s screen is a swappable tile. The endo will include a tiny battery so users can swap in a fresh battery without turning off their phones. Wistful about your BlackBerry? Add a keyboard. Want to switch to another device? Swap out your identity module. Not only can you make the phone your own, you can change it on the fly.

Eremenko’s team is sprinting to prove that it’s worth bringing software-like flexibility to phone hardware. With the help of partners, they hope to design super-fast 3-D printers to make Ara parts, miniaturize magnetic connections to neatly hold the endo and the modules together, and develop “contactless” data transfer.

This is not as far away as you might think. Eremenko says a “market pilot” will happen next year, and developers who sign up now should be able to get their hands on some early hardware in the coming weeks.

Andy Berndt's "blinged out"

Andy Berndt’s “blinged out” Project Ara concept

That’s where Google Creative Labs managing director Andy Berndt comes in. Convincing developers to make Ara modules is key to the device’s success; Berndt’s role is to make Ara sexy by dreaming up where it could go.

“Modularity” is one clinical way of describing this. Berndt prefers the term “blinged out.”

“If you’re really into music, you could put some amazing speakers on here,” he said in an interview. “If you’re really into photography, you would want Leica to make a piece. If you wanted your phone to last all day, you could have the e-ink screen. You could have a valet key for your car. With this kind of swappability, you can just let your imagination go.”

Berndt, who was formerly president of the creative agency Ogilvy in New York, is exuberant about Ara’s possibilities. “We started thinking about brands participating in this the same way they do apps. Everything from Airbnb to Sonos. … If you wanted to put all that functionality into one phone, it wouldn’t work. But Ara makes it possible.”

Eremenko thinks Ara will significantly expand the smartphone hardware ecosystem. “I think we will see things far more astonishing than just a better camera,” he said, noting that personal medical diagnostic modules might be particularly useful in the developing world.

But why would people be better off with Ara than an Android phone and the peripheral devices designed for it?

“People have hijacked the audio port to add stuff to smartphones, but I think that ecosystem is pretty anemic in the grand scheme of things,” Eremenko explained. “It lacks a cohesive and beautiful industrial design. You have to have a separate charger. Your phone ends up being this Christmas tree of stuff. It wasn’t designed to be a beautiful, holistic thing.”

But is Ara more than a phone for hardware hackers? Does its configurability come at the expense of some functionality? Can it compete with the best of today’s smartphones, or is it a play for the low end of the market? Ara has been discussed as a $50 Wi-Fi phone, but can it also compete on the high end?

Eremenko believes Ara can be a great phone. “You have to carry a little bit more battery, because all of the network-on-device stuff consumes more power,” he said. “And it’s a bit thicker than the thinnest devices today. But you’re actually not sacrificing much of anything. And for the consumer, living in the modular world is a lot more exciting.”




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