LG isn’t the only company working on modular smartphones

Google believe they're close to releasing their modular handset

At MWC 2016, LG showed off their latest flagship phone: the G5. Although the company has recently seen a 2% drop in smartphone sales, there’s no denying their main G-series of phones are terrific Android options. The media was particularly impressed with the G5 because it was touted as the first modular smartphone on the market. The bottom of the phone slides out, taking the battery with it. The actual modules that will be available are limited, but it’s the removable battery itself that has most people excited about the G5.

LG definitely isn’t the only company working on modular smartphones. It’s likely several of the major manufacturers have projects in the works. Google has already shown its hand with Project ARA, an exciting concept they hoped will be released to the public this year or the next. While the G5 will be expensive and has limited potential for modules, Project ARA intends to be extremely affordable with almost limitless potential for modules, as described on the project’s homepage:

“The smartphone is one of the most empowering and intimate objects in our lives. Yet most of us have little say in how the device is made, what it does, and how it looks. And 5 billion of us don’t have one. What if you could make thoughtful choices about exactly what your phone does, and use it as a creative canvas to tell your own story?”

Although described as a Google product, it was Motorola that began Project ARA as part of its Advanced Technology and Projects team. When Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, they kept the Advanced Technology and Projects team under the Android wing.

The phone consists of a metal exoskeleton as a frame that modules can be connected to. A starter kit including the frame, display, battery, CPU and Wi-Fi is hoped to cost around £40. They want the phone to be cheap and to have no license fees to create modules. Google doesn’t want to see modules only from the major manufacturers; they want the whole project to be as open as possible. If you want to make a module for it, you can. Get to Kickstarter!

Image © Maurizio Pesce

What modules can you connect? The obvious ones are typical smartphone features such as a camera, speakers, and extra batteries. The truly modular concept means that anything would be possible. Night vision lenses, lasers, projectors, physical game controller buttons, medical sensors, or even solar panels. The modules just slide and click into place but won’t fall off because the frame uses electro-permanent magnets to hold everything in place.

Google wants this to be the phone for everyone in any location with any budget. It’s a dirt-cheap entry level smartphone that is customisable and upgradeable without changing the whole phone. It can also be a top-of-the-range, highly specialised tool depending on the modules installed. Yes, the G5 has a replaceable battery and we’re thankful, but it’s hard not to get excited about Project ARA when the phone lets you replace the screen if it gets damaged.

Image © Maurizio Pesce

Sprial 1 and 2 are the iterations of Project ARA that have previously been shown off at mobile conventions and to the media. Google was originally hoping for a 2015 launch but it was delayed. A trial run was planned for Puerto Rico last year but it was scrapped in favour of a trial within the mainland US. Hopefully we’ll see a trial run this year or the next with a worldwide release soon after. We don’t want it to become another Google Glass.

Main image © Maurizio Pesce