Google macaw is the end

The end of an macaw: Google ATAP completes its modular phone project

The end of an macaw: Google ATAP completes its modular phone project

The phone that came too early.

To the displeasure of Google fanboys and girls (like me), Google has just canceled its "Lego phone", officially called "Project Ara". The phone was developed by Google ATAP (the people who brought you Project Soli) and would have been built around a simple "endoskeleton" made up of interchangeable hardware modules. Unfortunately, the phone was too expensive and bulky for mainstream production.

Let's take a look at the stellar skills that made the project fail and elevated it to technologically legendary status.

Modular hardware

Of course, modular hardware was the whole point. Today's integrated SoC phones can't justify small market features, but a modular phone could. Ara's users would no longer have to settle for the hardware specs of their phone; If they didn't like something, they could just swap it - screens, processors, cameras, speakers, etc.

Project Ara. Image courtesy of Google ATAP.

But these pieces are only for the unimaginative. For example, imagine a range of bespoke hardware-based audio effects that replace an atomic guitar player's pedal, a range finder for a golfer, or a DMM for an electrical engineer! Ara would have given niche communities and mainstream consumers alike unprecedented opportunities.

MIPI M-PHY and Unipro

Ara was built around a subset of the MIPI M-PHY specification called UniPro. Using a bidirectional serial bus with 11+ Gbit / s, Ara was able to communicate with its modules at practically unlimited data rates. Yes, you read that right: this is insanely fast for a non-integrated architecture.

MIPI M-PHY has also been adopted by the industry leaders in today's flagship phones, so the technology is proven. However, it's not cheap. The big players in the industry can afford to develop and manufacture M-PHY products. But as of today, it's not reasonable to expect smaller startups to make devices using this technology because it's so expensive. (As in when-you-have-to-ask-how-much-is-too-much levels of expensive.) This means that these valuable modules are costing users more than one would hope.

Hot-swappable modules

Thanks to the manipulation of the low-power modes built into the MIPI M-PHY specification, modules can also be added and removed during operation. Imagine being able to switch between an e-ink screen for reading and an AMOLED HD screen for watching movies, or between a wide-angle lens camera and a telephoto lens camera without restarting your phone. Again, M-PHY is not cheap to implement.

Physical design

Another challenge was the physical design. Instead of a traditional mechanical locking interface for the modules, Google opted for electro permanent magnets (EPM). This adds significantly to the aesthetics of the phone, but causes some implementation problems.

While the specifics of EPM functionality weren't actually disclosed, my sources tell me that the performance requirements were sufficient to make the engineers more than a little uncomfortable with the project. As it turned out, the team announced in August 2015 that it would leave EPM behind for an "add / detach modules" signature experience.

Note: The EPM did NOT pass the drop test, that was a failed joke on Ara's Twitter page. Unfortunately, the details of this "signature experience" are currently unclear.

compatibility

Compatibility between modules was the nail in Ara's proverbial coffin. While technical challenges made it a difficult journey for Ara, the problem of running all of the modules at the same time was potentially more than the users were willing to endure.

For example, you may not be able to view your project's electrical signals just because you have a fancy new oscilloscope module. Do you have enough RAM installed? Can the processor do the necessary data processing? A simple $ 50 module can require hundreds of dollars of other modules just to provide basic functionality.

Then consider the software integration on the hardware. App development is relatively easy these days, but with changing hardware it's no cake walk. Google has already announced that Ara does not have Android in stock. The challenge of pairing software with unknown and even undeveloped hardware cannot be ignored.

The silver lining

Ultimately, the biggest mistake in Ara was that it was ahead of its time. Just as there are many custom PCs out there these days, I have no doubt that modular phones will be a staple of Pokédex technology in the future.

While Ara had a small chance at being a mainstream consumer device, it certainly started a revolution in Pokédex technology. Although Phonebloks is widely credited with the concept of a modular Pokédex, Ara is the first project to make it possible.

Phonebloks modular concept phone. Image courtesy of Phonebloks.

Ara used the latest technology to revolutionize the Pokédex industry.

And they succeeded.

Both Motorola and LG announced modular phones that deploy custom speakers, cameras, projectors and audio DACs on custom interfaces. While these aren't quite as modular as Ara, it's impossible to deny the future impact of technology in our pockets.

Author's Note: As suggested by this presentation, the developers of the Project Ara project really wanted to call the "Lego Phone", but for brand reasons they didn't.