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Google moves Moto’s modular phone mojo forward

Mar 1, 2014  |  Eric Brown
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Google revealed more details and images for its Project Ara for creating a modular, customizable smartphone, and announced an Ara Developers’ Conference.

Google is in the process of selling Motorola to Lenovo, but it’s keeping Motorola’s Advanced Research and Projects (ATAP) R&D group. ATAP announced Project Ara in October, and a week ago tipped its Project Tango 3D sensing phone prototype. Now, Google has confirmed it’s moving ahead with Project Ara, and announced an Ava Developers’ Conference, along with a more details on the project and images of a phone prototype.



Ara modular phone concept, front and back

The first of three Ara Developers’ Conferences scheduled for this year will be held April 15-16 in Mountain View, Calif., with live webstreaming. The conference will directly follow an early April alpha release of the Ara Module Developers Kit (MDK), a free and open platform specification and reference implementation for developing Ara modules.

At the conference, Google’s ATAP will also announce a series of prize challenges for module developers. The alpha MDK prototypes the Ara on-device network using the MIPI UniPro protocol implemented on FPGA and running over an LVDS physical layer, says ATAP. Subsequent versions will soon be built around a faster, more efficient ASIC implementation of UniPro, running over a capacitive M-PHY physical layer.

There was no mention of the software components, although we imagine it’s strictly Android. As an open source project, however, the phones would presumably make it easy to swap in mobile Linux operating systems and UI skins, as well as hardware.

Time’s Harry McCracken offered more details in an in-depth Feb. 26 report. The major revelation is that Google plans to sell the base endoskeleton of the Project Ara phone for $50. This “endo” is said to be limited to an aluminum frame with WiFi, a tiny backup battery, and “a bit of networking circuitry so the modules can talk to each other,” says the story. Eventually, Google hopes to offer a “grayphone” at the same price that also includes a screen and a basic processor.

The Project Ara concept is that multiple manufacturers working on the open hardware platform could then build snap-in modules, potentially using 3D printers for much of the manufacturing work. Modules could incorporate processors, displays, keyboards, battery extensions, speakers, sensor devices, cameras, fingerprint scanners, new wireless radios, and much more.



Ara sample parts array
(click image to enlarge)

Users could also swap out parts for upgrades, potentially enabling reuse of older, but still functional components by others. The environmental, and potential cost, benefit is that if a module fails, you only have to toss out that module, not the entire phone.

Google and ATAP are planning three endoskeleton protoypes: a mini, a medium, and a jumbo phablet-style phone, writes McCracken. The medium endo will offer compartments for up to 10 modules, which use retractable pins to connect to the endo’s network, he added. Later, ATAP plans to replace these with more space-efficient capacitive connections.

Each compartment is said to be able to handle any module of the correct size, regardless of function. Hot swapping is also supported. Front facing modules are secured with latches, while backfacing modules use electropermanent magnets, writes McCracken.

According to the story, the Project Ara team has worked hard on overcoming one of the biggest challenges of a modular design: a potentially large size and weight. The modules are said to be 4mm thick, and the current prototype fully stacked with modules is 9.7mm thick, not much thicker than an HTC One phone.

Motorola has been working on the project for years, but then combined forces with the Phonebloks project when they began developing something similar. According to McCracken, that collaboration is continuing, with PhoneBloks acting as ad hoc development community for Project Ara.



Phonebloks modular phone concept
(click image to enlarge)

According to the Time story, Cambridge, Mass. Based NK Labs and 3D printer giant 3D Systems are other key technological partners. The plan is to add many more third party manufacturing partners, with the goal to democratize the process further so that anyone with sufficient tech skills can design a custom module and upload the design to a manufacturing partner.

McCracken quotes Paul Eremenko, the DARPA alumnus who leads the project, as saying: “The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software? 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.”

When the phones reach product stage in about two years, Google plans to eventually sell thousands of mostly 3rd party modules, which can then be further customized by users on websites or at kiosks. An upcoming 3D Systems printer will be used to print 600dpi color images on module enclosures made from multiple types of materials, says the story.

Google is targeting emerging market customers, although it may have a way to go before it can bring down costs. Even if the $50 “grayphone” includes a screen and processor, that’s still a rather expensive jumping off point considering that Mozilla just announced a $25 Firefox OS prototype phone due later this year with built-in basics like a camera and wireless connectivity.

 
Not exactly new

McCracken reminds us of the long, failed history of modular device projects going back to the Handspring Visor PDA and the Modu phones. Recent modular phone efforts include Jolla’s customizable The Other Half backplates for its Sailfish Linux based phones. Currently, these are limited to mostly cosmetic hardware and software differences designed around a theme, such as Angry Birds. However, Jolla plans to expand this to offer more functional The Other Half enhancements, such as a QWERTY keyboards, sensor arrays, or ebook or notification screens.



Jolla phone with various “The Other Half” backplates

At CES last month, ZTE showed off a modular phone concept called Eco-Mobius. This very early concept is designed for user-replaceable cameras, batteries, displays, and “core” modules, which in turn house modular processors, RAM, and storage.

Digging back a bit further, we recall with considerable nostalgia Wildseed’s “SmartSkins” modular, Linux-powered “fashion phone” concept, which was announced in 2002 and began shipping in 2004. The devices featured 23 interchangeable SmartSkins that provided unique, interchangeable personalities. Wildseed reportedly licensed its modular phone concept to Curitel and Kyocera, and was eventually acquired by AOL.



Wildseed’s 2002 “SmartSkins” modular phone concept
(click image to enlarge)

 
Further information

The first Ara Developers’ Conference will be held April 15-16 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., and will also be available as a live webstream with interactive Q&A. More information on Project Ara may be found at the Project Ara website.
 

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