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Google's Cure for Phone Obsolesence Is Coming Next Year

Project Ara — Google's efforts to build a modular smartphone may have slipped off your radar since it was first publicly unveiled more than a year ago. But the company has kept (ahem) plugging away at developing a smartphone where you can swap various parts in and out, and it's reached a point where a consumer version is within reach.

At the company's I/O developer conference today (May 20), Google announced it would make release a developer's edition of Project Ara during the fourth quarter of 2016. Google says a consumer version of Ara will be ready in 2017.

To review, Project Ara is based around the idea that you should be able to assemble a smartphone around different modules, swapping in components at will. That may sound a lot like LG's G5, which lets you replace the bottom of the smartphone with parts like a camera module with dedicated shutter controls, but Ara's approach is a lot more complex. The design Google showed off at this year's I/O has slots for six modules.

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Swapping in those different parts will let you easily tailor the functionality of your phone to your liking. More important, Google argues, it means you can replace outdated components of your phone with newer parts while keeping the phone itself, thus extending the life cycle of your mobile devices.

In today's demo, a Google engineer inserted a camera module onto a phone that could take a photo without rebooting. That's a vast improvement over the demo I saw at last year's I/O where the Ara phone had to reboot before the camera module would work. Removing the module is simply a matter of using a voice command or selecting an eject option from settings.

The prototype trotted out at today's demo looked fairly compact if the modules themselves sport a blocky appearance — like a Tetris board if you could use it to make phone calls. The consumer version should look a lot sleeker, with one speaker promising a thin and light model.

A slide from today's I/O demo hints at what a consumer version of Project Ara might look like.

A slide from today's I/O demo hints at what a consumer version of Project Ara might look like.

Google has already lined up some partners to develop ARA modules, including Panasonic and TDK among a host of others. And it hopes the release of a developer kit will bring along even more modules, which could include everything from health monitoring to navigation.