Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Team hopes to be able to sell you a modular smartphone starting in early 2015, with prices starting at just $50. For that price all you’ll get is the skeleton of a phone with built-in support for WiFi. If you want cellular connectivity, a camera, even a touchscreen display, you’ll have to install separate modules.

Still, the idea of shipping a modular smartphone at all is pretty ambitious, and Google’s hoping to do it less than two years after coming up with the idea for its Project Ara modular phone.

Project Ara

TIME’s Harry McCracken has a detailed look at Google’s modular phone project, and reports that the team is still working to bring down the cost. But the goal is to have a working prototype within weeks and a real product by early next year.

Right now if you want a smartphone you pretty much have to buy a device designed and built by large companies. Want a better camera, higher resolution display, or longer battery life? Then you’ll have to select the phone that best meets your needs.

A modular phone, on the other hand, would let you pick up individual models that meet your needs one at a time. If you never snap photos with your phone you can skip the camera modular altogether and use the space it would have taken up for an extra battery — or something else altogether.

Google is holding its first Project Ara developer conference in April, where the company plans to launch a developer kit that will let anyone design modules for the phone.

While that means we’ll probably see plenty of camera modules, wireless modules, and speaker modules, it means we could also see people design modules that help smartphones do things that they generally don’t today. We could see modules for niche markets.

What about a module that accepts audio input from a broadcast-quality microphone, for instance, for journalists or musicians who want to use their phones for field recording? How about a module for 3D video recording for the handful of people who actually care about that technology? You’re not likely to find a Samsung Galaxy phone with those features anytime soon, but a small startup making those modules wouldn’t need to sell millions to make a profit.

At this point, Google envisions offering 3 different endoskeletons in small, medium, and large sizes. A medium version would have room for 10 modules, each measuring around 4mm thick. That’d result in a smartphone that measures 9.7mm thick, or  just a tad thicker than an HTC One.

Modules would be held together using latches and magnets — and everything would be hot-swappable, which means that you could swap out camera modules, for instance, without rebooting the phone. So you could move from a wide-angle lens to one with optical zoom to quickly snap photos of different subjects.

There are a lot of hoops to jump through before the first modular phones go on sale — and it’s anything but clear whether these devices will appeal to anyone other than geeks. But Google’s team is hoping to make these phones truly accessible, even to folks who may never have owned a smartphone before. You may be able to customize and purchase Project Ara devices from convenience stores or mobile kiosks one day.

Not only would it let you choose the features you truly want in a phone instead of relying on decisions made by a big company, it could also open up the design of smartphone hardware to many more people. Not only could a startup design a new phone camera, mic, or speaker without having to convince a phone maker to include it in their hardware — hobbyists may eventually be able to design their own hardware and even print some or all of it at home using 3D printers.

Or maybe this is all wishful thinking… it’s not like Google hasn’t put time and effort into designing products that went nowhere. But it’s hard not to get a little excited about the idea of a phone that’s at least a customizable as a desktop tower PC.

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12 replies on “Google’s modular phone set for 2015 launch, starting at $50”

  1. It would be great if they would make a laptop or tablet version as well.

  2. I will be interested to see how they navigate FCC approval, not to mention the carriers, they are also known to sometimes be cranky about weird devices on their networks (even if we pay for them).

  3. If it has a high end slider keyboard and SD card blok then I’m in. I’ll probably install Sailfish or Ubuntu on it if it’s possible seeing that Google is gimping kebyoard and external storage support more and more with each new version of Android.

  4. Might be a stretch… but maybe this might result in better driver support overall, specifically graphics drivers. If you’re going to upgrade your cpu/gpu, its going to be harder to install new hardware on your phone with drivers being in the state they are now (I imagine).
    Hopefully this might benefit Linux ARM driver support. But that is most likely wishful thinking…

    1. For me, I’m hoping that Intel gets rid of PowerVR GPUs in their smartphone SoCs for the next generation. At least we know Intel provides excellent open source Linux driver support for the in-house GPUs and pretty much all their chips.

  5. Hmm… so maybe we can finally have the option of a device from Google with a MicroSD slot? 🙂 Even if we have to wait for a 3rd party vendor to sell that option.

    Seriously though, this really sounds like a good idea if it can actually work. A lot of tiny interconnects in a device that has to survive a mobile life is a difficult design problem. There is a good reason (beyond the lock in) most top end devices are totally sealed, making one that opens is asking for dust contamination issues.

    The problem this would solve is that at any one point in time a customer really only wants one or two improvements while phones are a one piece take it or leave it product. If you had a five year old BT module, who would care? Anyone? And for all the hype, how many would be able to live a perfectly good digital life with 802.111bg WiFi? Quite a few if they had the option to save a few dollars. And yea, cameras are rapidly improving but again, a lot of people don’t care and would be content to keep using an ancient one. Just interchangeable radios would be a wonder since changing carriers wouldn’t require tossing the whole device.

    I want a slider chassis with a keyboard. Please?

  6. Lets hope that google will materialize this project and Ara won’t end up like project fail “let’s buy Motorola” .
    I also hope that Zte’s project Moebius will catch momentum, because competition is a goood thnig. After release (ara or moebius… doesn’t matter) there will be a need for parts… cheap and reliable parts.
    I wonder what would be the costs for the smartphones parts… bcause if the price per component is bigger than 50$…. the hole smartphone would end up priceier than an ‘one piece’ smartphone.

  7. Honestly I really hope this goes somewhere. If we can upgrade parts of our phone rather than the entire thing then I think it would cut down on e-waste and save us money in the long run.

    1. Good point. The whole thing about being able to customize your phone seems not very important to me. It’s not like I desperately want a 10MP camera over a 5 MP camera. But with CPU capability changing every eight months, being able to swap out just the CPU might be nice.

      Then again, this might be a chicken and egg problem. By the time this takes off, we might have good enough processors where we won’t be wanting to change phones so often.

      1. “The whole thing about being able to customize your phone seems not very important to me.”
        But to be able to add a second battery module or a battery module twice the size (instead of a camera module or other modules) i think it will be important, don’t you think?

        1. I don’t know. If it’s a like-for-like replacement maybe. But I think making things modular increases the size of interfaces, and size is kind of a big thing for mobile devices. Laptops don’t really have this modular approach because size is a constraint. Desktop computers are modular because size is less of an issue.

          Given the choice between a modular device and a slim device, I’d pick the slim. And for the most part, the variety of phones out there and the competition pretty much means the feature set most people are looking for exists.

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