The Project Ara Smartphone Moves Towards Implementation

This Display Daily article will provide some background on Google’s Project Ara modular phone project and report on recent developments at phone maker Yezz (Miami, FL) that are turning this project into a product.

The Project Ara Android-based modular smartphone originated within Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group. It utilizes a so-called “endo,” which is a metal endoskeleton in which there are spaces to mechanically and electronically attach modules. Each removable module contains a different smartphone function or capability. Electropermanent magnets attach the modules to the endoskeleton without the need to utilize power. Endos of different sizes are planned to accommodate smartphones of different sizes. It is envisioned that users will be able to put any module into any space of the correct size on the smartphone.

Several rationales are offered for the Project Ara approach. Ultimately, the advantages reduce to allow smartphone owners to get the capabilities they want on an ongoing basis and to do so at the lowest possible cost.

In terms of capabilities, the Ara approach allows changing the functionality of the smartphone by swapping modules. In addition to “basic” modules such as displays, cameras and batteries having a range of capabilities, the modules could be specialized such as, for example, a thermometer or a medical device (we heard of a smoke alarm being developed at MWC – Man. Ed.). Google imagines that users will eventually be able to buy new modules through an online store, much as apps are purchased today.

In terms of lowering cost, the thinking is that users will be able to insert a new module into an existing smartphone to upgrade an existing capability or enable a new capability. In this way, there is less need to incur the expense of purchasing an entirely new smartphone.

Yezz was approached by Google to become one of the first manufacturers of modules for Project Ara. Yezz reports that it was selected because the company has been growing not only in Latin America but also in the US and Europe.

It is required that Yezz utilize Google’s endoskeleton reference design. This design allows for 11 modules including the display. Yezz does, however, have control over which modules it chooses to develop. At the time that the Yezz Project Ara phone first becomes available, the company is planning to offer basic modules including an APU (Application Processing Unit), a 5 MP camera and a charger module. Later offerings may include a gaming controller module and a solar battery module.

Before the Yezz Ara phone is ready for commercialization, several issues must be successfully addressed.

Stretching battery life to at least one full day. Approaches to accomplish this include providing a supersized battery module and the capability to hot-swap batteries.

Development of a so-called Module Developers Kit (MDK) that is designed to communicate with both the endoskeleton and any of the inserted module.

Assuring for the compatibility of all modules and the smartphone. One example of such a compatibility issue might be a weak processor and very high-end camera.

Achieving durability and waterproofing, a concern deriving from the open, snap-on design of the smartphone.

Later this year, Google is planning to launch a pilot Project Ara product test program in Puerto Rico. Apparently, Puerto Rico is a good choice for the program because of the island’s tremendous volume of Internet traffic on mobile phones and a favorable blend of smartphone and feature-phone owners. Google has signed two carrier partners for the launch, Claro and Open Mobile.

It is not yet clear what the modules will cost. Google has, however, stated that “We have set engineering and manufacturing goals for the bill-of-materials cost of a basic, entry-level Ara device to be in the $50-100 range”. It should be noted that this is just the cost of the components and the price to the consumer will depend, at least in part, on the physical size of the smartphone and how it is priced by the carriers.

Yezz stated that when its Project Ara smartphone goes on sale in Puerto Rico, the price tag will be about $200 (Yezz’s PR contacted us after publication to say that it has not announced pricing). Google stated that third-party logistics partners in Puerto Rico will be used to address issues like warranties and replacements.

Yezz has reports having manufactured “about 100” module prototypes at factories in the US and China. The smartphone is showcased this week at the Mobile World Congress 2015 held in Barcelona. – Arthur Berman