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Google to have build-it-yourself smartphone prototype ready 'within weeks'

Google's Project Ara aims to create a $50 smartphone with modular components

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Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group has announced its first developer event for Project Ara, an initiative that is aiming to create a modular smartphone.

A total of three Project Ara developer conferences will be held this year, with the first, outlined on the Project Ara homepage, taking place at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum on 15-16 April.

Project Ara aims to create a free, open hardware platform that will enable users to replace components on their smartphone over time, instead of replacing the entire handset. The modular building framework should therefore make it easier for people to customise their smartphones according to their needs.

Motorola first unveiled the Project Ara initiative in October 2013 and Google is keen to push ahead with the project, despite selling off Motorola to Lenovo last month. This is possible because Google decided to keep the ATAP group under its Android umbrella when it sold Motorola. 

"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 when the idea was first unveiled.

"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."

Eremenko told Time magazine that ATAP is 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.

The design for Project Ara is based on the concept of Phonebloks, created by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. It consists of a structural frame called an "endoskeleton" that holds various modules in place. The modules can be anything ranging from a new display, keyboard, an extra battery or something not yet thought of.

The Project Ara platform supports three sizes of phone: mini (rather basic), medium (mainstream) and jumbo (an oversized, phablet-style variant). The endoskeletons include an aluminum frame, networking circuitry and a back-up battery, in addition to a set number of module connectors. For example, the medium frame will have room for 10 connectors.

Google has teamed up 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 endoskeletons.

Google is aiming to get the cost of the endoskeleton down to as low as $50. Eremenko said he envisages that the device will be sold at convenience stores and will come pre-loaded with an app that enables buyers to begin the process of customising the phone with additional modules and aesthetic modifications.


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