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Google plan’s to launch modular smartphone prototype

Google may have sold Motorola to Lenovo, but it is pushing ahead with Project Ara — an initiative to create modular smartphones that can be built up from detachable components — with a functioning prototype expected to be ready “within weeks”.

Motorola first announced Project Ara in October 2013. The idea is to create a modular smartphone that allows users to replace components over time, instead of replacing the entire handset. This means it can be easily customised for each consumer’s needs, and will also be more eco-friendly that traditional smartphones.

“We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software,” said Paul Eremenko of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group at the time.

“Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones. To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.”

When Google sold Motorola, it decided to hold onto the ATAP group, which has fallen under Google’s Android umbrella. In an interview with Time magazine, Eremenko said that ATAP is now finishing up work on a functioning prototype, which will be ready within weeks, with a version ready for commercial release in the first quarter of 2015.

Google plans to get the cost of the endoskeleton — which it is calling the “grayphone” — down to $50. Eremenko said it will be sold at convenience stores and will come pre-loaded with an app that will let buyers begin the process of customising the phone with additional modules and aesthetic modifications.

There will be three sizes of endoskeleton: mini (rather basic), medium (mainstream) and jumbo (an oversized, phablet-style variant). They will include an aluminum frame, networking circuitry and a back-up battery. Each endoskeleton will have several module connectors — for example, the medium frame will have room for 10 connectors.

Google has partnered with NK Labs to do the electrical, mechanical, and software engineering and with 3D Systems to make a high-speed 3D printer to mass produce the Project Ara endoskeletons.

“We want not just to create something that’s custom, and not even just something that’s unique, but actually something that’s expressive so that people can use this as a canvas to tell a story,” Eremenko said. “So that you can set your phone down at dinner on the table next to you, and it becomes a topic of conversation for the first fifteen minutes of dinner.”

The design for Project Ara is based on the concept of Phonebloks, created by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. It consists of a structural frame known as an endoskeleton and modules that slide into place. A module can be anything, from an application processor to a display or keyboard, an extra battery, or a pulse oximeter.

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