Google will this year launch its modular DIY smartphone, dubbed Project Ara, but only in the US territory of Puerto Rico.
Ara, announced by Google 15 months ago, was developed by Motorola's Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group as a fully modular system where components such as batteries, screens, GPS and cameras, can be swapped in and out of a basic smartphone framework.
Google took on the project when it bought Motorola and kept the ATAP team (and Motorola's patents) when it sold the firm on to Lenovo. Now the Chocolate Factory is going to get its first phone to market in the Caribbean, it told attendees at the Project Ara module developer's conference in Mountain View, California.
Puerto Rico has a number of advantages for the launch, Google explained. The relatively undeveloped landline system means 77 per cent of locals use mobiles as their primary provider. The mobile market is also relatively competitive; AT&T leads the market with around 25 per cent of users, but local providers have a strong role.
Google is teaming up with two of these, OpenMobile and Claro, to launch the phones. Although it wasn't clear how many modules will be available Google did talk about using removable 1280 by 720p screens (very handy if you drop the phone), as well as cameras, batteries and wireless units.
Each of the modules has its own firmware which works in tandem with the phone's central management system. Google told developers that it wants them to pack as much smart software into modules as possible, rather than keeping them as dumb hardware units.
The modules themselves can be built by anyone, but must work with the phone's Android operating system. Google said that it had been looking at 3D printing the modules, but those plans will remain shelved until someone works out how to 3D print electronics cheaply and reliably.
Choosing Puerto Rico as a test site also has one other advantage for Google – there aren't many people there and if there are problems with Ara then the damage to the phone's reputation will be limited.
Modular electronics isn’t new, but there have been significant problems in the past. Getting connectors for modules that are robust enough to handle removal and insertion is tricky, as is getting them to work in unison.
Nevertheless, Google thinks that it has sorted out many of these issues and it wants to make a go at running the phones in the real world. If Ara works, it could lead to a fundamental rethink of how phones are made and sold, but there's a long road of testing and refinement to come first. ®