The building that houses Google’s Advanced Technology and Products division offers a few subtle hints that something weird is going on inside. The pirate flags in the bathroom. The big sign reminding ATAP employees to always erase their whiteboards after a meeting. The workers who encounter me milling around in the entryway on a warm day just before the big Google I/O conference, each more worried than the last about what a stranger is doing here. Rick Osterloh, Google’s newly hired hardware boss, comes rushing out of the building to head to his next meeting with a big smile on his face, but even he won’t let me in.
Eventually, a handler shows up and ushers me into a conference room. The whiteboards are indeed empty, except for a single phrase that appears to have been written in something permanent: “Aim High.” Dan Kaufman, once the director of innovation at Darpa and the new head of ATAP, sits across the table along with three of the men in charge of one of the most ambitious ideas inside Google’s haven for ambitious ideas: Project Ara, the modular smartphone. Depending on who you ask, and maybe on the day, Ara is either the future of the phone—a forever-lasting, totally personal device—or an impossible pipe dream.
It’s been more than a year since Google showed Ara to the public, and a lot has changed. The mission hasn’t: Build a smartphone out of interchangeable parts that you can swap on the fly to make your phone exactly what you want right this second. Add a wide-angle camera module for your hike. Swap it for a telephoto—and add a larger battery—for the soccer game. Replace the screen with an E Ink display for reading on a long flight. The idea is, the ability to swap modules would lengthen the life of a smartphone—devices can last five years instead of two—and lessen the waste accrued in the rush to upgrade.
After years of failed demos, public sputters, and worrisome silence, Ara works. About 30 people within ATAP are using Ara as their primary phone.
It’s the how, not the what, that was problematic. Today, Rafa Camargo, Ara’s technical project lead, wants to show me what he’s made. He picks the black phone up from the white table in front of him, flips it over, and taps the power button. It turns on. Next, he picks up a camera module from the table, pops it into the phone, opens the camera app, and quickly takes a crisp photo. “There’s your camera, live,” Camargo says.
Hang on. You caught that, right? It works! After years of failed demos, public sputters, and worrisome silence, Ara works. About 30 people within ATAP are using Ara as their primary phone. Camargo actually has the luxury of worrying about things like aesthetics, rather than whether it’ll turn on. “Please pay no attention to how it looks,” he tells me, flipping the blocky smartphone over in his hands, “because it’s a prototype.” It’s not a concept, not an idea, not a YouTube video. It’s a prototype. Developer kits for Ara will be shipping later this year, and a consumer version is coming in 2017. “We have now built all the key components of the platform,” Camargo says. Ara is no longer an experimental part of ATAP: It just became its own division within Google. Now it’s time to find out if there’s room left for another smartphone revolution.