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Monday, 3 March 2014

Google’s Project Ara of a Modular Smartphone Could Start at $50

Last year, designer Dave Hakkens positioned the concept of a modular smartphone--or Phonebloks--as a way to cut down on the electronic waste of handsets. Motorola would go on to work with Phonebloks to eventually bring the idea to fruition, with the end result being Google's Project Ara. And according to a report from Time, these customizable phones could be out next year for an incredibly affordable price point.

"The smartphone is one of the most empowering and intimate objects in our lives," said Paul Eremenko, who heads up Project Ara for Google ATAP. "Yet most of us have little say in how the device is made, what it does, and how it looks." Interestingly, the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group was one sector Google kept following the sale of Motorola to Lenovo.
Google thinks Project Ara could offer an entry point into the smartphone market for emerging regions, citing the over five billion people in the world who are still without one. According to the Time report, Google wants Ara smartphones on the market by 2015, for as little as $50.
On January 29, Google announced that it had agreed to sell Motorola, its phone-manufacturing business, to Chinese electronics giant Lenovo. Thus concluded the company’s brief, unprofitable foray into smartphone hardware, which began when it revealed plans to acquire Motorola Mobility in August, 2011.
Granted, the $50 handset will only have base features--perhaps even lacking cellular functionality--but it's still an interesting starting point. Since users could swap out the modules for better features at whim, Ara has the potential to be a fully customizable, truly affordable smartphone.

The current plans call for three different sizes of modular smartphones, from the $50 mini up to a large phablet. And given the opportunity for unique modules, there's no telling what developers may dream up. Google will host a series of developer conferences for Ara, beginning in April. But anyone can check the devices out, thanks to a free live-stream.

Except that it didn’t really end there. It turned out that Google was holding onto one organization within Motorola: the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. Headed by Regina Dugan, the former director of the U.S. Defense Department’s fabled Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ATAP aims to bring the same approach to mobile-gadget innovation that DARPA used to kickstart the Internet, satellite navigation, stealth fighters and other technologies that started small and eventually mattered a lot.
In retrospect, it’s completely logical that Google would choose to retain ATAP. The technologies and projects it specializes in are the wildly audacious ideas Google likes to call moonshots. The company already has another group devoted to such efforts — Google X, which is working on Google Glass, self-driving cars, broadband balloons and more — but it’s hard to imagine it handing off any moonshots in progress to Lenovo or anyone else.
Among the ATAP initiatives that have been announced, one in particular is quintessentially Google-y. It’s Project Ara, which aims to reinvent the smartphone by breaking it down into modules that can be assembled and customized in a limitless number of configurations. The company first disclosed that the project existed on October 29 of last year, when it released some intriguing photos but little in the way of concrete details. Today, it’s lifting the veil further as it prepares for an Ara developer conference it’s holding at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum on April 15-16. A year or so from now, it hopes to have a product on the market.


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