Google's Project Ara will let users swap out modules as needed

Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Project Ara, which is focusing on creating modular-designed smartphones, will come with specialized software that lets users swap out nearly all hardware modules, according to Paul Eremenko, the head of Project Ara within Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group.

Project Ara will use a modified version of Android L, the latest version of Google's Android software platform. The modified software is being developed in collaboration with Linaro, a nonprofit organization that develops open-source software for devices running chipsets based on designs from ARM Holdings. Eremenko made his comments at a keynote appearance at the Linaro Connect USA 2014 conference earlier this month.

Eremenko noted that "Android is not designed today for dynamic hardware configurations." As a result, he said, Google is making two major modifications to Android by working with Linaro. One is the ability to support a "hot plug" of various hardware peripherals so that users can make "dynamic configurations of the device hardware throughout its operational cycle." He also said Google is creating at the kernel level a set of generic class drivers for UniPro devices.

Eremenko said he expects the changes to Android L to be completed and demonstrated at the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2015, and then the Android team will "mainline" those changes into a future release of Android.

"Thanks to this [software] version, the modules, except the CPU and the display, will be hot swappable," Phonebloks's Giulio Minotti wrote in a company blog post. "This means you can change them without turning the phone off. The modules will be available on a new online store, like Play store." Google is working with Phonebloks on Project Ara.

Via Project Ara, Google effectively wants to give end-users the ability to retrofit and continually customize the hardware of their smartphones. The core of Ara is an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be nearly anything, such as a new chipset, display, keyboard or sensor.

Each module of the phone would be responsible for a particular function, such as the wireless antenna, battery or camera. Google controls the design of the endoskeleton, while third-party developers will design the modules.

"The first fully functional prototype will be shown at the second Ara developer conference, in December," Minotti wrote. "The project's development continues apace through the collaboration with many partners such as Quanta, Toshiba, Rockchip, Foxconn and others."

Eremenko said that Project Ara aims to deliver devices with bill-of-materials costs of $50 to $100, which might not be the devices' final prices. Google is also working on a high-end modular phone with a $500 production cost, with final prices to be determined by partners.

Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, or ATAP, is led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief; ATAP is not part of Google's $2.91 billion deal to sell Motorola to Lenovo.

For more:
- see this Phonebloks blog post
- see this PCWorld article
- see this Engadget article

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