September 10, 2013, was a pretty remarkable day. Apple enthusiasts might recall Tim Cook unveiling the iPhone 5S before the world; the device which introduced ‘Touch ID’, making fingerprint sensors on mobile phones a mainstream feature. But it is also a special date for another important announcement, albeit one that did not capture the public’s imagination on the same scale. On September 10, 2013, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens uploaded a video to YouTube to promote his college graduation project: Phonebloks, “a phone worth keeping.”
Noticing the amount of e-waste generated, a significant proportion of which was mobile phones, Hakkens proposed a smartphone made of interchangeable modular blocks. Each block — the screen, the battery, the processor, the camera and so on — could be easily upgraded or repaired so that it wouldn’t end up in a landfill after two years.
Unbeknown to him, a small technology incubator called ATAP, Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group had been working on a similar device in secret for the past year. “Phonebloks was announced, and the world went berserk. If Dave Hakkens hadn’t had this viral video, we wouldn’t have announced Ara probably for at least another year,” said former ATAP design lead Dan Makoski in a VentureBeat interview. “We were outed by Dave, inadvertently.” The team at ATAP eventually contacted Dave, and 48 days later, Motorola revealed it: Project Ara.
Daniel Makowski was hired by Regina Dugan, the newly appointed head of ATAP, after Google’s $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility closed in May 2012. He had designed the original Surface at Microsoft and led design research globally at Motorola. He was recruited as the Head of Design at ATAP. While Makowski reserved the highest form of respect for Apple and their vision of creating one object a million times flawlessly, he had also noticed the growing maker culture. Keeping with the spirit of extreme personalisation, Makowski initially called Project ARA Esprimo — Esperanto for “expression.”
Once, standing in line at a food truck with Makowski, Dungan had an epiphany. Just like a customised meal is prepared in food trucks catering to the customer’s preference, Dungan wanted to put 3D printers and hackable electronics in a truck, to make mobile handsets on the spot, customising them based on the wants of the persons buying them. The plan was to create electronics that are malleable, adaptive and personal, and where each handset is different, reflecting the person to which it belongs. Conceptualizing the idea and making it work are two very different things, as the team at ATAP learnt.
Google ATAP requires their employees to sign a 2-year contract. Limiting their time at Google allows employees to take risks and move at a faster pace than other employees. Such risks would have to be taken to bring the project of such magnitude to life. To realise this technology would need brilliant people who are willing to take risks. Over the next year, some key contributors to the project were recruited, and the project, not even a year old, underwent a leadership change. Paul Eremenko, who worked on rapid manufacturing at DARPA, joined ATAP in April 2013, ten months into Makoski’s time at the studio.
After spending the summer of 2013 working nonstop, the underlying technical structure of what would become Project ARA had been worked out – a “packet-switched network on a device,” printed on 3D printers and held together by experimental EPM magnets under development by Ara Knaian.
While the team slogged endlessly, their superiors were not that enthusiastic about it. According to Makowski, Motorola’s then-CEO Dennis Woodside was rather unimpressed by Ara’s initial prototypes, feeling that the project satisfied a niche market, and would not prove to be too popular. Hakkens then went public with Phonebloks. His bold idea took off like a rocket, it brought ARA out of the shadows, forcing the ATAP to develop Project Ara (name inspired by the project’s eventual electrical, mechanical, and software engineering lead, Ara Knaian) out in the open, with all the eyes of the tech industry on it.
Eremenko was the one who pushed the project forward; he spent sleepless nights trying to get Ara out in the hands of the people. He was ambitious, and the team at ATAP optimistically believed that they might be able to get something out in the customers’ hands by 2014. After Project Ara was announced in October 2013, he informed that ATAP would release Project Ara’s Module Developer’s Kit (MDK) early in 2014 and also promised a basic commercial release in the first quarter of 2015, in February 2014.
Google teased its large fan base with a video from Phonebloks showcasing some design and technical aspects of a prototype of Ara’s main Endo module, to keep the excitement building, the same month that it released Project Ara’s developer kit, one month behind schedule. Two months later, ATAP started accepting applications for Ara developer boards. The team was in full swing, determined to make Ara real, to see it in the hands of people on the streets.
On October 29, 2014, Google released a video of its first working Ara prototype. In January 2015, the company shared a second clip, this one depicting a collection of modules painted in vivid colours, from temperature and humidity sensors to heart rate monitors. A near-working prototype of an Ara smartphone was presented at the Google I/O 2014; however, the device froze on the boot screen and failed to boot completely.
In January 2015, Google unveiled the “Spiral 2” prototype of Ara, and it planned to test market a later model in the United States’ territory of Puerto Rico later in the year. Google chose Puerto Rico due to it having a large mobile phone market, and because it is still subject to U.S. telecommunications laws—allowing for continued correspondence with the FCC. However, in August 2015, Google announced that the Ara pilot in Puerto Rico had been delayed indefinitely and that the company would instead hold pilots in “a few locations” in the U.S. sometime in 2016.
At Google I/O 2016, the company unveiled a new development model, the “Developer Edition”. The new iteration features notable changes to the original concept; the device now consists of a base phone with core components which could not be upgraded, including the antenna, battery, display, sensors, and system-on-chip, and extensible with modules for adding features such as a secondary display or replacement cameras and speakers. While this model did deviate from the initial concept of Ara, it still promised a lot. Google announced that it planned to ship the Developer Edition in late 2016 and perform a consumer launch of Project Ara in 2017.
On September 2, 2016, Google confirmed that Project Ara had been shelved.
Ara was an ambitious and visionary attempt from the start. It required significant technological advancements to be executed flawlessly, while it dreamed of changing the handphone landscape forever. The team behind Ara attempted to do to hardware what app store had done to software. Just like today anybody with a computer, an internet connection, time and dedication anybody can design apps and earn money from them, the team at ATAP envisioned a future where the same would be possible for hardware modules. The modular boards, circuits and kits would be available online, and those interested and skilled can construct their mobile accessories. Large corporations, small businesses, individual hobbyists could manufacture modules for personal use or consumers.
It wouldn’t have happened on the same scale as the app store revolution, but it still would have resulted in more off-beat products and services than currently available from the streamlined mobile hardware industry, who push a uniform vision on everyone.
Ara was a shining beacon of innovation and experimentation at Google, and when Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, it held onto ATAP and Ara.
Ara ultimately was a victim of its unsurmountable technical flaws. As detailed by Recode, separating a phone into components threatened to slow communication between them, while also sapping battery life and making phones more expensive. Also, the electromagnets that held the various modules attached to the skeleton were not correctly developed to be used in commercial devices. More research and development was needed before they became viable methods to hold the various modules to the skeleton.
Dave Hakkens had envisioned Phonebloks as a 10-year vision, but when Google got involved, they tried to achieve it in 2 years. Maybe Google will try again in the future, but that seems unlikely given that they announced Pixel after shelving Ara, and also, Google (read Alphabet) has grown into such a massive organisation, that for such an ambitious and wildcard project to receive enormous resources in the future seems difficult. Google might license or sell Ara, however, as it has hinted.
Even though Ara is dead, the concept of modular phones lives on, albeit trimmed down massively, far removed from its initial idea. Motorola, the former Google company, unveiled Moto Z, on which some modules could be attached.
Let’s hope that in the future when the technology is ready, someone has the guts to resurrect the modular dream.
Written by Shashwat Agarwal for IECSE,
Edited by Abhishek Mishra for MTTN.