The build-your-own-phone movement has taken another few steps forward. On Wednesday, Google announced it will host developer conferences and release a toolkit for modular phones.
Project Ara, announced by Motorola Mobility last October, is the name of an R&D effort to create a phone platform where users could swap and add hardware as well as software components, creating their own customized model. Originally started in Motorola Mobility, Google is keeping Ara and its parent organization, the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) Group, even as the Motorola division moves to its new owner, Lenovo.
Three Google Ara Developers' Conferences are now scheduled, with the first one in mid-April. They will focus on the alpha version of the Ara Module Developers' Kit, or MDK, a free and open platform spec and reference implementation that is being targeted for release in early April.
Basic Phone for $50?
The conferences will review existing and planned features of the emerging Ara platform, as well as announce prizes for module development.
According to news reports, Google plans to release about a year from now an Ara Wi-Fi basic phone for about $50, with additional prices for add-ons. Users would have the ability, for instance, to add the kind of cellular connection they want, a better screen, a faster processor , a camera or other enhancements to fit their needs and wallet.
In November, Motorola signed an agreement with 3D printer solution provider 3D Systems to create facilities for building modular parts.
This not only raised the possibility that a manufacturer like 3D Systems could build customized parts on order and en masse, but that users with access to 3D printers might print at least some of their own modular components. For instance, a user might 3D print the enclosure and acquire the snap-in circuitry from a provider. Project Ara is already investigating the use of public kiosks for users to get -- or make -- their components on the spot.
Ross Rubin, principal analyst for industry research firm Reticle Research, pointed out to us that Project Ara is "a hardware manifestation of what Google's Android provides" as a customizable, open-source mobile operating system.
He noted that a modular phone is "the anti-iPhone," given that Apple is known for "its tightly integrated machines." It also runs counter, Rubin said, to "what we've been seeing over the last several decades" as mobile devices have offered more and more functions and higher capabilities in single packages.
It is unlikely a phone composed of snap-on modules will approach the sleek and stylish look of many current mobile smartphones. Rubin acknowledged that a counter-trend might find the same appeal in overtly diverse components that, say, has made the mix-and-match colors of Fiestaware dishes into its own style.
The biggest question, of course, is whether modular phones would only appeal to a techie hobbyist-like market, or if they might reach a broader market. Rubin said that "most consumers are just looking for something that can meet with design and functional needs," although he acknowledged that customizability and adding capabilities as needs and budgets increase might appeal to a larger audience than just techies.