Google has every intention of making a smartphone with customizeable, swappable hardware modules into a tangible reality, but it has some kinks to work out first.
The company thoroughly laid out plans for its modular smartphone at the Project Ara Developers Conference in Mountain View today. Even for a company as big as Google, the idea of a phone with swappable components is a lofty goal—especially in a mobile industry with a well-established production chain. It'll be interesting to see if Google can actually disrupt that with this outlandish idea, but it certainly believes it can.
"The IKEA effect"
Project head Paul Eremenko began the conference by detailing Project Ara's main objectives, the most interesting of which is to help spark the "IKEA effect" among smartphone users by encouraging them to essentially make their own device. "Let the consumer make…changes over their own life and their own evolution," he said.
The Project Ara kit will allow users—developers, for now—to swap components into an endoskeleton framework by sliding them in from the side. The endoskeleton will accept different component modules, like a processor, display, battery, or camera, allowing users to make a phone comprised of different hardware from different vendors. The component blocks will talk to each other using the high-speed UniPro communication standard, ensuring high bandwidth and low latency between modules. Still, bandwidth and latency won't be good enough for the processor and RAM to be located in different modules—those will have to be packed together, as they are in phones today. Modules are held tightly in place with electromagnets. Google added that this is the "first time the electropermanent magnet is used in this case."
Google plans to dole out barebones kits, dubbed "Grey" phones, to interested developers. There are currently three different variants including Mini, Medium, and Large. Each will accept a different number of the variable-sized blocks. For instance, the Mini phone chassis will accept four 2x1 modules and two 1x1 modules. The Medium phone has room for four 2x1 modules, two 1x1 modules, and two 2x2 modules, and will be the "default" configuration.
Not what you've seen before
You've probably never seen a phone like this before. The initial prototypes appear blocky and unrefined, but the most interesting part is how the different "blocks" will snap into the unit, which Eremenko demoed on an overhead projector.
Google is proud of the industrial design of Project Ara and its many available finishes, adding that while it believes it has produced a beautiful product, "It's for the market to decide." Eremenko wants users to think of the Ara phones as more than just custom and unique, but as expressive, too. "[It's] the kind of thing you can put on the table at dinner and the first 10-15 minutes of the conversation is about the phone."
It's hard to gauge how much each phone would ultimately cost. Each "Grey" developer kit should have a bill-of-materials of about $50, which would usually speak to a retail price in the $100-150 range. Add-ons like the processor, Wi-Fi block, display, camera, and battery pack could bring up the cost of the phone to upwards of $600, but that's not Google's intention. "Pricing is something that's beyond the scope of a [research-and-development] effort," insisted Eremenko. "That's a product organization question and it's dependent on geography and carrier and things." He added that he expects the ecosystem to be competitive.
Learning from Android
Android's current code doesn't support hot-swapping hardware components like this, but Google is working on that. "Our vision for the software architecture is a set of generic class drivers analogous to the way USB is treated today," began Eremenko. "This is potentially a great thing to happen to Android." He went on to say that the intent is to support Android and create a UniPro class driver for the Linux kernel so that this is possible in future iterations of the operating system.
Android does have its shortcomings, like fragmentation, which Eremenko and his team are insistent on keeping at bay. A generic group of drivers would help alleviate this conundrum, and help protect against future device fragmentation. "That…would be downloaded to the device, perhaps through something like Google Play, but that device does not have to be linked in the kernels," imagined Eremenko. He added that Google aspires to bring this feature to Android by early next year.
It's not just about a phone, it's about an industry
Eremenko and his tag team of presenters, including former Motorola designer Dan Makoski, spent a lot of time discussing some of philosophies behind Google's Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group, the team behind Project Ara. It isn't just about producing a heavily customizable, easily configurable smartphone, but to spearhead an industry. ATAP has given itself an end-goal of two years to bring this product to market. "It's very similar to early DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)," said Eremenko, in reference to using actual science and technology to bring an idea to life, rather than simply researching it. Currently, Google is working with companies like Toshiba to help bring this idea to market.
The idea isn't to bring a single phone to market, but to create standards that allow for a whole ecosystem, a whole industry of customizeable phones and modules.
There are many hurdles to jump before Project Ara becomes a working product that normal consumers can buy, but for now Google is doing what it can to encourage developers to give this modular phone a try. "We've been waiting 20 months for this moment," said Makoski. And now consumers will have to wait to see what the developers come up with.