Google’s Project Ara is an effort to create the first truly modular smartphone, allowing consumers to swap out parts of their phone without buying a whole new handset.

Want a better camera? Just buy one. Don’t need a camera, but want super-long battery life? Install two batteries.

Google’s been working on the project for some time — but Google only plans to sell the endoskeleton itself. The company is hoping other companies will provide individual modules. Now Google has released the first MDK (Module Developer Kit) to describe how those modules will fit together to form a phone.

endo_01

The MDK describes how developers can create modules that’ll slide into a Project Ara device and lays out guidelines for module sizes and styles. While the hope is that developers will come up with all sorts of unexpected modules, there are a few modules that you’ll need on any smartphone, such as a processor and display, so Google lays out guidelines for ensuring it’s easy for users to swap out those parts.

Other modules could include batteries, chargers, speakers, or more specialized items like a module to measure blood oxygen levels.

Since the modules are held in place through electro-permanent magnets, they shouldn’t fall out during normal use, but you should be able to slide out a module and replace it without a screwdriver or any other tools. So not only will you be able to upgrade components on a Project Ara phone, but you could carry around extra modules and swap them out as needed.

For example, you might want to use a standard smartphone-style camera most of the time. But a module developer could offer a camera with an optical zoom lens that you could insert on an as-needed basis.

Project Ara endoskeletons may come in about three sizes, including a small model about the size of an iPhone, a medium model that’s closer to the size of a Moto X or Google Nexus 5, and a large model (which won’t be available until later) which is about the size of a Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

via The Verge



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11 replies on “Google’s Project Ara Module Developer Kit paves way for modular smartphones”

  1. This MUST mean Google is also working on better driver/hardware support from Android. Considering the difficulty of upgrading the OS from one version to another because of the vagaries of random hardware for the platform, a device mixing and matching hardware at will, definitely needs to be more flexible in its hardware support. Perhaps Google envisions rolling out something similar to Windows Update in the near future to also reduce OS fragmentation. We shall see, but Google is clearly working hard, executing fast, and firing on all cylinders as they say.

    1. I had the idea that Kit-Kat was (the beginning of?) an attempt to do just that. Whether modular phones ever really come to pass any more than modular laptops… I have my doubts. OEMs are far too hooked on planned obsolescence as a business model. It is too bad this hasn’t been investigated and crushed by regulators long ago, but “corporations are people” and “those with the big bucks rule” – at least until our current anti-human courts get replaced sometime in the future.

      1. I can see Google pushing OEMs out of the business to be honest. I can also see why OEMs wouldn’t want to encourage this sort of thing. The likes of Lenovo for example wouldn’t stand to make much on a modular exoskeleton (I am guessing) whereas component manufacturers wouldl ikely continue to do well (Quallcomm, Samsung, Broadcom etc).But Google sold Motorola and has no vested interest in phone hardware any longer and they use Android as a platform to promote their primary business model, so they have no vested interest in defending the status quo.

        Also, one imagines all the innovation behind this is generating tons of patents so Google’s prime mover advantage is going to be huge, and if this catches on Google should generate royalties like crazy.

        I’ve seen lots of comments on how it isn’t an innovative idea, but neither were self-driving cars, or for that matter, electric ones. It takes money, engineering, and hard work to make these things happen. I think that point is largely irrelevant vis a vis what Google is getting done here, which is real.

    2. Google can’t really do much directly. They can somehow pressure ARM and ARM vendors to open source drivers (Google could then dedicate devs to contributing to it) or to actually update their proprietary ones. So far that hasn’t really been happening. When it comes to Linux and ARM (especially chips targeting consumer devices), it’s a mess. I can’t wait to transition our SBCs from ARM to Bay Trail/Avoton based ones.

      Maybe, Intel can continue their trend of supporting their chips with open source Linux drivers and long term support into the mobile space. However, Intel needs to integrate more functionality into their SoCs (it’d be a waste to have separate modules for GPS, cellular and other functions) which they are doing but to some it may not be fast enough. Their upcoming smartphone SoC still uses closed PowerVR GPUs but at least they’ve integrated LTE.

    1. What’s your point? There are a lot of old concepts that finally succeed when someone else better works on it. Being first isn’t always better.

      I never understand why consumers care about who did what first and who is copying. I care more about who is doing it better. With that said. How is the Modu 1? Know of any reviews? Oh well, that wiki page says they shutdown and Google bought them already in 2011. I guess it’s not just recently that Google’s been interested in modular phones.

  2. I love the idea of an upgradable phone that is truly multi-carrier would be cool to see what they do with it. I could imagine tablet cases for this module allowing the tablet to be as lite as you want. Having GSM, and CDMA modules it awesome too..

  3. I don’t know, the revenue stream from the steady sales of modules might be enough to overcome the large chunk they get at upgrade time.
    THEN they can modify the standard, obsolete the old stuff so that everyone has to buy a new base patform and it’s off to the races agai with “enhanced” versions of the same stuff!
    Awesome, right?

  4. I think that is really cool. One can get what one wants and not what one doesn’t. It would be cool if this was carried over to netbooks and notebook computers.

  5. i forsee modules being released encased in clear acrylic so you can see the circuits and inner workings

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