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It should have a working prototype in weeks

Google's Android operating system offers a high level of software customization in smartphones, but Google wants users to be able to customize smartphone hardware as well.

According to TIME, Google could have a modular smartphone in the hands of customers by early 2015, which would allow them to piece together speakers, batteries, processors and more of their choice. 

Motorola initially announced Project Ara a few months ago, which is the original modular smartphone idea. But when Google sold Motorola to Lenovo in January for $2.91 billion USD, many wondered what happened to Project Ara. 

As it turns out, Google kept Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, which encompassed Project Ara. 

The project is alive and well, and is run by former director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Regina Dugan. Google has partnered with NK Labs to do the electrical, mechanical, and software engineering, and also with 3D Systems to make a high-speed 3D printer for Ara endoskeleton production. 

TIME spoke with Paul Eremenko, head of Project Ara, who confirmed some details behind the new modular smartphones.


[SOURCE: Motorola Blog]

Google plans to sell an endoskeleton for $50, which would simply act as a structural frame for the other components. Made of an aluminum frame, the endoskeleton will come in three sizes: mini, medium and jumbo. They will also have networking circuitry, a back-up battery, module connectors and Wi-Fi (they won't come with a cellular connection). 

From there, users can put their phones together by selecting a display, keyboard, processor, camera, etc., which connect to the endoskeleton via the module connectors. 

"We want not just to create something that's custom, and not even just something that's unique, but actually something that's expressive so that people can use this as a canvas to tell a story," said Eremenko. "So that you can set your phone down at dinner on the table next to you, and it becomes a topic of conversation for the first fifteen minutes of dinner."

The idea is to let users swap out modules as they malfunction, or when upgrades become available. The phone doesn't need to be shut off in order to do so, and users will be able to do the swaps themselves. 

Google said a functional prototype should be ready in weeks, and should be available to customers early next year. 

Google and Motorola aren't the first to produce a modular smartphone. The now-defunct Modu launched the world's lightest phone -- the Modu 1 -- in mid-2008. 
 
Back in October 2013, Project Ara partnered with PhoneBloks creator Dave Hakken for the project.

Source: TIME



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Excited to see what Google can do
By tayb on 2/27/2014 2:07:00 PM , Rating: 2
I have serious doubts about this concept but I'm excited to see what Google can do. The prospective of swapping out a CPU seems quite interesting. Pop in a fast CPU to game and pop up a more battery friendly CPU for regular use.

I'm interested to see what they have. There was once a time where this was possible in a notebook but the desire for slimmer profiles basically killed the concept. Maybe Google has some interesting ideas up their sleeve.




RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By lagomorpha on 2/27/2014 2:25:44 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
The prospective of swapping out a CPU seems quite interesting


Until ARM pulls an Intel and switches sockets every generation.

quote:
Pop in a fast CPU to game and pop up a more battery friendly CPU for regular use.


But... we already have big.LITTLE CPUs.

I'd really like to see something like this work but I'm skeptical the implementation will be anything other than a gimmick.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By coburn_c on 2/27/2014 2:40:44 PM , Rating: 3
Plus it's gonna be a serious brick phone


By RapidDissent on 2/28/2014 11:41:28 AM , Rating: 2
Also, I imagine it will creak and flex a lot after a few months of holding it, squeezing it, shoving in pockets, sitting in a purses, etc.


By nafhan on 2/27/2014 4:44:09 PM , Rating: 1
It wouldn't matter if "ARM" (really Qualcomm, etc.) moved to a new pin configuration. You'd be exchanging your old Ara "processing module" (or whatever they call it) for a new one, and Google would have some interest in maintaining compatibility between generations.

To compare to a desktop computer, swapping out the "processing module" would be like swapping out the motherboard, CPU, RAM, and GPU, but keeping your other expansion cards and peripherals.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 3:37:09 PM , Rating: 2
Ya, I cant see this being too useful for the cost. So we can swap out components as needed per spec, and upgrade when better ones come along... Sounds great, I just don't see how they can do this is a cost effective manor. When phones are already available fairly cheap, it seems like this would never be as cost effective as just getting a new phone. If they can figure out how to do this and have it not be too expensive, I will be surprised.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By Solandri on 2/27/2014 3:49:32 PM , Rating: 1
Smartphones aren't cheap. The cheap pricing you see is a result of carrier subsidies. If carriers move to the T-Mobile model (charge $20/mo less if you don't buy a subsidized phone), then this could work.

If they stick with the AT&T/Sprint/Verizon model (continue to charge the subsidized monthly fee even after the customer's contract is up), then yeah this won't gain traction. Not because phones are cheap, but because carriers are charging you extra to provide service for a phone you own and have fully paid for.


By hughlle on 2/27/2014 3:59:03 PM , Rating: 2
They do that in the UK, once you've passed you're contracts time limit, it's same price, except they end you an email and text telling you it's time to upgrade and you get a new phone or can just end the contract and move to a sim only contract for a few pounds a month.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 5:02:38 PM , Rating: 2
Moto G $99 off contract. Nexus 5 is high end and doesnt cost much either.

I am not against it, it will be nice if it works out, but in general, for not too much cash, you can get a brand new screen, CPU, memory, radio, the whole 9 yards with a new phone. It seems like it would be difficult to make it modular and have it be cost effective... or comparably sized. Adding all those modules means losing internal space. But... In hte end, we will have to wait and see the final product and pricing for it, and upgraded components.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By daboom06 on 2/27/2014 6:21:03 PM , Rating: 1
the nexus 5 is subsidized by google ad revenue.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By retrospooty on 2/27/14, Rating: 0
RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By geddarkstorm on 2/27/2014 7:43:01 PM , Rating: 2
"[T]his still cant possible be as cheap to put together the same range of components in a compartmentalized modular phone."

Why not?

Other than not having the benefit of economics of scale -- yet -- what about this would make it more expensive than current phones?


By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 10:00:59 PM , Rating: 2
The design. Needing to have all the componenst seprated so they can be individually plugged in. Something has to suffer. Size for one, I am guessing price as well. Well have to see though.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By thewrayj on 2/28/2014 1:39:17 PM , Rating: 2
...but the Nexus 5 is still sold at cost. The profit margins on $600 phones are too high; companies and consumers are slowly catching on and hopefully this high-end smartphone bubble will pop.

Look at the $500 iPad Air vs. the $650 iPhone 5s. Why are consumers paying an over $100 premium for a device that costs over $100 less to assemble? I know, iSheep, but we can make similar android comparisons.

http://www.isuppli.com/Teardowns/News/Pages/New-iP...

http://www.isuppli.com/Teardowns/News/Pages/Ground...


By Jedi2155 on 3/2/2014 7:51:01 PM , Rating: 2
If you think smart phone profit margins are high, when was the last time you bought a soda fountain drink?


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By tayb on 2/27/2014 4:09:20 PM , Rating: 2
I don't know how they will do it either. I don't know how they will protect the modular parts and get the wiring correct without the phone being extremely bulky. I see tons of problems.

But Google seems to think there is something here, so maybe there is? Who knows.

I don't know how they make a modular phone that is better than the Nexus 5 for less than $350. But I hope they surprise me.


By Reclaimer77 on 2/27/2014 4:45:51 PM , Rating: 2
Phone manufactures and carriers alike have to be worried about this.

With Google's backing, this has the potential to be a very disruptive product.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By Wazza1234 on 3/2/2014 9:46:18 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Ya, I cant see this being too useful for the cost. So we can swap out components as needed per spec, and upgrade when better ones come along... Sounds great, I just don't see how they can do this is a cost effective manor


You can't understand that upgrading a portion of a phone can be cheaper than upgrading the whole phone?

That's.... weird.

Even if the initial cost of the phone is higher, the idea will be that you can upgrade for less because you're not having to re-buy a battery, screen, keyboard?, and whatever other modules you have.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By retrospooty on 3/2/2014 5:16:45 PM , Rating: 2
I know its tough, but try and follow. Right now, for one pretty low price you can get a brand new phone with the latest screen, CPU, battery, camera, flash, everything, all brand new all at once. That is today and prices are dropping fast. I am just not seeing a need to do component level replacement, even less so moving forward. If you cant afford a whole new high end phone there are a TON of good mid range ones out there that perform fantastically, even some dirt cheap ones that get the job done. I dunno. It just doesnt seem useful to me.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By Reclaimer77 on 3/2/2014 5:45:53 PM , Rating: 2
Uhh computers used to take up a building, now we can build our own.

I don't see how you can proclaim the things you're saying when we have no clue what their design specs are yet. Maybe a company with billions in R&D thought of something you didn't?

But yeah shoot this down offhand I guess?


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By retrospooty on 3/3/2014 7:44:31 AM , Rating: 2
I am not shooting it down, just not seeing a huge need for it with everything being so cheap already.

Like I said in several other posts, just not specifically the one you just replied to ... Having all the components separated so they can be individually plugged in, something has to suffer. Size for one, there is simply do way to compartmentalize a phone like this and not lose space. I am guessing price as well. We will have to see the final product though.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By Reclaimer77 on 3/3/2014 10:38:54 AM , Rating: 2
Seems to me that screen size and battery determine the footprint of a smartphone. Not the components. I mean just look at the iPhone!

So sure this might add some size to the components, but with modern screen sizes you probably wouldn't know it.


By retrospooty on 3/3/2014 11:10:04 AM , Rating: 2
"Seems to me that screen size and battery determine the footprint of a smartphone"

That is kind of what I meant... The internal components are very tightly integrated, designed to seriously tight specs to fit as much as possible in it, specifically to get as large a battery as you can get in there. I would think this would make it difficult to get that largest battery possible... I would rather just buy a phone. It's not like it will be crap in 1 year when I upgrade it anyhow... But again, we will have to see a final release and what tehy can do at what price.


RE: Excited to see what Google can do
By dashrendar on 2/28/2014 12:36:05 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Pop in a fast CPU to game and pop up a more battery friendly CPU for regular use.


To me, this is a big step back. Ideally, you would have one CPU that runs at high frequency and many cores when gaming, and then throttle down and shut off cores for battery friendliness. Swapping out CPUs is a major usability issue.

Personally, I want my phone to be a phone and that's it. Besides, phones today are fast enough to do what needs to be done on phones given the small screens. Now or 10 years from now, I don't see myself writing code on my 5" phone. In other words, I am not very excited about Project Ara, but I'll keep reading about it... 'cause who knows?


By Wazza1234 on 3/2/2014 9:47:58 AM , Rating: 2
You're absolutely right. The idea of modular phones isn't what the original poster said, you wont be asked to swap out CPU for different use cases. You'll have the option to upgrade your CPU in 2 years time without upgrading the rest of your phone.


By retrospooty on 3/2/2014 5:18:24 PM , Rating: 2
" Ideally, you would have one CPU that runs at high frequency and many cores when gaming, and then throttle down and shut off cores for battery friendliness"

Yup, this is already out and has been for a while. The glory of ARM.


Whatever
By lagomorpha on 2/27/2014 1:42:30 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
users can put their phones together by selecting a display, keyboard, processor, camera, etc.,


Good to see the concept of a hardware keyboard in a phone hasn't been completely forgotten.




RE: Whatever
By FITCamaro on 2/27/2014 2:23:11 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah seriously. I loved the hardware keyboard of my original Droid.


RE: Whatever
By iamkyle on 2/27/2014 3:39:22 PM , Rating: 1
Where I come from we call those "BlackBerries".


RE: Whatever
By bug77 on 2/27/2014 5:35:51 PM , Rating: 2
I, for one, would like to pair the biggest battery available with a more down to earth dual-core CPU. But it's gonna be a while.


Finally!
By theplaidfad on 2/27/2014 3:09:48 PM , Rating: 2
Finally Lego will be able to make their entry into the smartphone market!




Features
By brshoemak on 2/27/2014 3:22:40 PM , Rating: 2
I'll only buy the phone if they release the 'cat with sunglasses' module pictured above. Otherwise, no deal.




Cool Stuff
By laviathan05 on 2/27/2014 3:30:01 PM , Rating: 2
I'm very curious about how thick this phone is going to end up being. There is just no way that you will be able to match the space efficiency in a standard smartphone with something like this.

Also, I think it would be cool if they would sell kits that let you use your own 3D printer to create a unique chassis and install the necessary circuitry afterwards.




Some pluses and some minuses.
By bupkus on 2/28/2014 1:28:14 PM , Rating: 2
If the market is becoming one of component providers, labor providers, software providers and integrators, then perhaps this can work. Yes, there will be some serious attention to secure locking and quick-release designs which will increase space and cost at least initially.

It could become just a frame with snap-on design specs which nobody will build for.

Now, I'm not saying Apple does this but they are to a large degree outsourcing these services in the production of their phones. Of course they define high standards and keep tight controls for component production and integration. Their OS is of course inhouse just as Android will remain. :)

Perhaps Google is threatening to do with component standards what they did with their OS, to "open source" these specs to provide mass deflection from single house labels to "Android" designs. Could this be an Open Source model of the future? More cooperation with standards, more competition with small innovators.




“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith














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