Google wants first Project Ara smartphone to go on sale in January 2015

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) aims to have the first smartphone designed as part of its Project Ara modular smartphone program on sale in January 2015. The so-called "gray phone" will cost around $50 to make and will be an entry-level phone, with prices determined by commerce partners.

Google is working on a high-end modular phone with a $500 production cost, with final prices to be determined by partners, according to Paul Eremenko, the head of Project Ara within Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group. Google unveiled its roadmap at the first Project Ara developer conference Tuesday.

"The existing way of making smartphones is mature. But there are new ways of making phones," Kaigham Gabriel, deputy director of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects Group, which is behind Ara, told the Wall Street Journal.

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 anything from a new chipset, display, keyboard or sensor. The project is similar in many ways to Phonebloks, a venture unveiled in September, and Google is working with Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks.

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.

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

Google also is planning an online marketplace where consumers purchase additional modules, depending on what they want their phone to do. "We want it to be like an app store," Gabriel told the Journal. "You may want a blood-sugar monitor and a cigarette lighter on your phone. Why should you not have that?"

Over the next few months Eremenko and the two other full-time Project Ara team members at Google will be working with a wide range of partners, including academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon and business partners such as 3D Systems, a 3D printing company that will build a large 3D printer so components can be easily fabricated.

Interestingly, Ara phones will support Google's Android platform, but the operating system does not yet support the drivers necessary for it to control modular components.

"It's true that Android does not support dynamic hardware today," Eremenko said, according to CNET. "The good news is that we're Google," he added, to laughter from the audience at the developer conference. Android drivers will come in December, one of the final tasks that the Project Ara team will handle before the public release of the "gray phone."

Project Ara will need to draw support from large OEMs to make modules as well as wireless carriers, Rajeev Chand, head of research at Rutberg & Co., told the Journal.

Google will also need to drum up consumer support for customizing the hardware of phones.  "There may not be a consumer market for this," Chand said.

Google is also considering using eye tracking and heart-rate sensors to check if users are overwhelmed by the modules choices, Eremenko said, adding that if stress levels rise, the configurator app will cut down the choices to make it more manageable.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this CNET article
- see this Engadget article
- see this TheNextWeb article
- see this The Verge article

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