Google's modular smartphone concept could be available next year

More details have been revealed about Project Ara, the modular smartphone initiative that Google first revealed in October. This Time article appears to have some of the most comprehensive coverage, and there are lots of juicy nuggets within. One of the more interesting tidbits is the fact that the Advanced Projects and Technology group responsible for Project Ara is helmed by Regina Dugan, a former director of DARPA, the Department of Defense research agency that develops new tech for the U.S. military.

Project Ara lead Paul Eremenko also comes from DARPA, and it sounds like his team is well on its way to making modular handsets a reality. A working prototype will be completed within weeks, the Time article says, and the first commercial product could arrive in the first quarter of next year. That initial offering may be a "grayphone" with barebones functionality and a $50 starting price. Users would then add modules to expand the device's capabilities.

As we learned in October, Ara modules are designed to plug into an endoskeleton that serves as the backbone of the system. This endoskeleton will be the only Google-branded component in the final product. Third-party modules attach to the front of the frame with latches and to the back with electro-permanent magnets. These modules are only 4 mm thick, and the whole handset is just under 10 mm.

Right now, modules interface with the endoskeleton using retractable pins. Later versions are expected to switch to capacitive connections that should be less fragile. The slots are designed to accept any module of the correct size, though Time points out that some components, like antennas, will need to be installed in certain locations. Some modules will also support hot swapping.

Time outlines the various challenges faced by the Ara initiative, and it explores some previous attempts at customizable handset hardware. The full article is worth reading if you're interested in the project. Part of me thinks that Ara-based smartphones will have a hard time competing with highly integrated handsets, which should be able to squeeze more potent hardware into slimmer, smaller bodies. But I'm not sure that mobile devices need to be much thinner or lighter, and I like the idea of customizing my smartphone's hardware in a meaningful way. Google also seems to be focused on deploying Ara in the developing world, where it wouldn't necessarily compete with the latest and greatest integrated handsets.

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