Google Courts Developers for Modular Smartphone Project

Google AraGoogle, with Project Ara, is trying to bring customization to smartphone hardware using a marketplace akin to software app stores. But it needs third-party developers to succeed.

Executives and engineers from Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group came up with the project, and are holding their first conference on Tuesday and Wednesday. The goal: to persuade developers to create new hardware for the effort.

The Ara smartphone is based on a metal frame designed by Google. Hardware “modules” built by outside developers will slot into this frame and will be held in place by magnets.

Google plans a basic Ara phone that costs about $50 to build. Consumers can then buy new modules, via an online marketplace or app store, from developers, depending on what they want their phones to do.

On Tuesday, some developers were already discussing hardware add-ons for the nascent platform.

Peter Sisk, a senior engineer from The Institute for Health Metrics, said he is working on an Ara module that could analyze a small drop of blood and collect results that usually require much larger samples.

“This is essentially a blood lab on a chip,” he added. The technology could be used to analyze blood samples in remote locations and send the information back to hospitals through wireless networks, Sisk explained.

Eric Blanchard, a design engineer from satellite communications provider Globalstar, said his company could make an Ara module that users slot into their phone when they are out of the range of wireless and wifi signals. The module would hook the phone up to Globalstar’s satellites and let users make calls and access the Internet, he explained.

Derek Linden, founder of X5 Systems, is developing antenna modules for Ara phones that can be customized online based on users’ requirements.

“You could have hundreds of thousands of hardware apps on this platform,” Sisk said. “Compared to software, it’s a little harder to do hardware hacks, but it’s getting easier.”

Kaigham Gabriel, deputy director of Google’s ATAP group, said Ara phones could help villages in developing countries connect to the Internet and wireless voice services cheaply. Each villager could have a basic Ara phone and the village could have one module that provides 4G wireless services.

When someone needs to make a call, they can insert the 4G module into their device. When they are done they can pass it to their neighbor, Gabriel explained.