After many long months of waiting, we're finally getting a first glimpse of what Google's Project Ara modular phone will look like, courtesy of some mock-up modules from phone-maker Yezz, one of the first manufacturers that's truly embracing Google's snap-together smartphone platform.
What is Project Ara?
For the uninitiated, Project Ara involves an 'endo' -- a metal endoskeleton filled with spaces to attach removable modules, which stay attached using magnets. These modules make up the smartphone itself. So for instance, you'll have a camera module, a processor module, a battery module and, of course, a big screen module that slots onto the front.
The advantage of this approach is that your smartphone experience becomes a very flexible one. Want a better camera? Just buy a new module. Want your phone to have a thermometer or a small medical device? One day there could be a module for that. Even better, Google imagines that you'll be able to buy new modules through an online store, much like you currently buy apps.
Yezz gets involved
When Project Ara goes on sale in Puerto Rico later this year (while there's no set date, Yezz told me it's aiming for the end of the summer), Yezz hopes to be one of the first companies with modules you can actually buy.
The Ara endoskeleton itself is Google's design, leaving the form and construction of the modules themselves to Yezz. Yezz told me that when its Project Ara product hits the market, it's planning to cover the basics, including an APU ('application processing unit', the module that acts as a controller for all the others), a camera and a charger module, which will likely take the form of a module with a microUSB port attached.
That's not to say there's nothing more ambitious in the works however. Yezz showed me mockups of a gaming controller module, and a solar battery module.
In total you can fit 11 modules in Google's reference design, including the display, so one concern I raised with Yezz is whether -- once you've made your Ara phone do all the things any other phone can do -- will there really be much room left for quirky, experimental modules? The company told me that Ara gives you more flexibility in fact, pointing out that you could, for instance, take out the charger module during the day, leaving you with an empty slot to try something new with.
Yezz says that when its Project Ara smartphone goes on sale in Puerto Rico, it'll be hoping to attach a price tag of approximately $200 (which translates to roughly £130 or AU$256), suggesting Ara could broadly become a mobile phone technology for the masses, rather than the wealthy elite.
Project Ara has been a pipe dream for so long, it's exciting to see it make some real progress. The challenge for Yezz in building not one product but 11 which work seamlessly together, is enormous.
Having handled Google's Project Ara prototype though, which unlike Yezz' examples is made up of real electronic components (but isn't quite at the full "up-and-running" stage), this ambitious smartphone re-imagining is starting to feel less like an idea dream, and more like a real object you may even be able to buy in a matter of months. It remains to be seen whether the public will embrace the futuristic idea, or stick to the smartphone status quo, but happily, it now looks like we may have an answer in mere months. Stay tuned.
Update 5 March 2015: A previous version of this article reported that Yezz will provide Ara endoskeletons, rather than just the modules.