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Google’s Future Phone: The Modular Project Ara

Google is jumping into its next futuristic hardware project. This time it’s a modular smartphone dubbed Project Ara that can be customized by swapping out individual pieces, such as the battery and the camera.

Google's future phone

The company previewed the very early-stage project at a developer event in Santa Clara, California, this week. Google said the first version of the phone will likely be available in early 2015. Though the company didn’t mention a sale price, it said the devices would cost anywhere from $50 to $500 to manufacture, depending on the model.

The phone will come in three sizes, ranging from mini to “phablet,” and it will run on a future version of the Android mobile operating system. A frame called the Endo will hold the interchangeable components together with magnets.

The idea is to allow smartphone owners to customize and update their phones on their own — say, popping out an old battery or broken display for a new version, and thereby creating a device that lasts longer than current smartphones.

Because the Ara project is open-source, the fun will be adding third-party modules or even printing your own with a 3D printer. Instead of relying on a single hardware manufacturer, people could shop around and add unusual elements made by startups, cameras produced by camera companies, or custom hardware for highly specialized work phones.

The modules will be sold much like apps are now, through a custom Google online store and possibly even physical pop-up stores.

An Ara device could be used for five to six years. That lengthy lifespan (for a smartphone) could cut down on electronic waste and shake up the planned obsolescence that seems common with current mobile gadgets.

Instead of dropping a still-working Galaxy S4 for the S5, you could just upgrade the parts you care about, like adding a fingerprint sensor or a better camera.

Project Ara is the brainchild of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP). When Google bought Motorola’s mobile division for $2.9 billion, it also picked up ATAP, its experimental lab where employees work on futuristic projects. Google is already selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo, but it’s hanging on to ATAP and its leader, former DARPA director Regina Dugan.

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