updated 03:57 pm EST, Thu February 27, 2014
Introductory modular device will have Wi-Fi, display, no cellular radios
Google's modular smartphone could end up being an extremely cheap device at launch, according to Project Ara lead Paul Eremenko. The basic entry-level model of the device may be priced as low as $50 if Google gets its way, providing customers a touchscreen and basic components it requires to function, though it will just have Wi-Fi instead of radios for a cellular connection.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Eremenko advised the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group is headed up by former director of DARPA Regina Dugan, with the group hoping to have a marketable product ready by next year, and a functional prototype operational within weeks.
The modular system could help bring more people into the smartphone market with a far lower cost of ownership, by allowing anyone to create modules for the open hardware platform. "The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?" asked Eremenko, "which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space." Google recently announced it will be putting on a series of developer conferences to help companies start to create modules for the project.
Google's Project Ara
Rather than Google or its manufacturing partner create all the possible modules for Project Ara, the company will be supplying only one Google-branded component. Three different sizes of endoskeletons, the main frame that modules connect to, will be produced by Google, with each meant for a different size of device and offering more modules. While the modules themselves can be created by anyone, they will all connect in the same way, and will be hot swappable, allowing users to pull out a camera module to change for a second battery. Components will be held on with a combination of latches and app-controlled electropermanent magnets, with the final device also said to be water resistant.
Google also envisages a different way for the device to be sold. Instead of mobile phone stores, customers will be able to go to dedicated kiosks for components, built inside an industry-standard shipping container so it can be transported easily to other locations. It is suggested that the same kiosks could use social media updates or a tablet that can measure heart rate and galvanic skin response in order to suggest what components to buy and use. People that travel could be pointed towards bigger batteries, while updates consisting of photographs taken at night may lead to a recommendation for a low-light camera.
Even though the overall plan sounds intriguing for both potential customers looking for a customized device and those in emerging markets wanting a cheap device, there is still the hurdle of regulatory clearance from the FCC, among other agencies. While it is unclear how it would test every single combination of component, Eremenko claims to have received encouragement from the FCC, suggesting it as "good for the American industry" over the use of innovation instead of making the same phone but "a few dollars cheaper."