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Project Ara phones with hot-swap modules launching in early 2015

Geoff Gasior
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Project Ara, Google's modular smartphone endeavor, seems to be coming together nicely. According to the Phoneblocks blog, the first "fully functional prototype" will be shown during an Ara developer conference in December. The official launch is reportedly scheduled for "early 2015."

During a recent presentation, project lead Paul Eremenko revealed that most Ara modules will support hot swapping. Although the device will have to be switched off to change the CPU and display components, any others, including cameras and batteries, can be changed on the fly. The endoskeleton actually includes a small battery that provides "some seconds" of juice to facilitate quick battery swaps.

Google's Android L operating system has also been modified to support hot swapping. Those changes were made in cooperation with the folks at Linaro, and they'll apparently be rolled into the standard version of the OS.

Modules will connect via UniPro, a royalty-free interface standard that's been around for a while. Native implementations seem to be scarce right now, but Eremenko said Chinese SoC vendor Rockchip is working on quad-core chip with UniPro onboard. That chip will be based on ARM's Cortex-A7 core, which is aimed at low-power and entry-level devices.

The budget SoC fits with Project Ara's goal of bringing mobile Internet access to a broader swath of the developing world. Eremenko anticipates Ara-compatible smartphones to have a bill of materials of just $50-100. He didn't explain how barebones those offerings might be, but he did note that the design allows folks with deeper pockets to spruce up their device with more exotic modules. That's sort of the whole point behind the concept.

Although the first Project Ara devices may be too low-rent to appeal to enthusiasts, it's encouraging to see Google working out the technical details required to create modular handsets. Let's hope the company's efforts translate to desirable devices—and modular components—that free us from the locked-down hardware of current smartphones.

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