Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) modular smartphone effort, known as Project Ara, is inching closer to getting actual products in the hands of consumers, with a pilot launch in Puerto Rico scheduled for the second half of 2015.
Google executives made the announcement Wednesday during a Project Ara developer conference. While the pilot program is an important milestone, Google acknowledges that there are still several technical, financial and practical hurdles to overcome before Ara phones are ready for prime time.
For the pilot, Google plans to partner with local carriers OpenMobile and Claro. According to CNET, Paul Eremenko, the head of Project Ara within Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, said Puerto Rico was an ideal test market because it has a diverse user base, a solid mix of smartphone and feature phone owners, and 75 percent of Internet access takes place over mobile connections.
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, camera module or sensor.
When the pilot kicks off, users will be able to alter customize their devices using the Ara Marketplace and Ara Configurator apps to help manage the phone's different modules and troubleshoot issues, according to The Verge. Google also plans to open several "food-truck"-style stores for consumers to actually test and explore the devices out before they use them. Google aims to have around 20 to 30 Ara modules available across 10 different categories by the time the pilot program launches.
Eremenko said Google is using the pilot to find out what is working well in Project Ara and what needs to be improved. The trials will also give Google a good sense of how much consumers will pay for a modular phone--Google hopes a basic, entry-level Ara device will be in the $50-100 range.
Google especially wants to know how consumers will react to having a multitude of hardware choices for smartphones. "We have to carefully curate and manage the way that choice is presented so as not to overwhelm the consumer," Eremenko said.
Ara is one project run by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, or ATAP, which is led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief. According to Re/code, at the conference, Dugan compared Ara to other moments in technology history, such as the advent of the PC.
But she acknowledged challenges. "We're going to have to make hardware design more like software design," Dugan said. The initial Project Ara development kit that Google has released is a start, she added, but better simulation tools are needed. "We have to virtualize much more."
Eremenko said that the company is looking to improve its current hardware prototype, known as Spiral 2, and make sure the hardware can access 3G networks and is able to hotswap different modules in and out of the phone. Google hopes to move onto the next prototype design, "Spiral 3," by the second quarter.
Dugan said Ara will only succeed if Google can get it into the hands of consumers outside of Google and the scores of developers who have shown interest so far. "Our desire to predict the future far exceeds our ability to do so," Dugan said.
In November a Finnish startup called Vsenn announced itself as a challenger of sorts to Ara. Not much is known about Vsenn, but the company's website claims the project was co-founded by a former Nokia Android X program manager. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) decided in July to scrap the Nokia X program to focus on developing Lumia-branded Windows Phone smartphones.
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