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Google's Regina Dugan Explains Why the World Needs a Modular Smartphone

Coming to Puerto Rico shortly.


The premise of Google’s Project Ara is an appealing one.

Who wouldn’t want a phone in which they could swap out the camera or get a faster processor, rather than replace the whole phone?

Screenshot by Re/code

But consumers are treating phones more like consumer electronics and are replacing them so often that Project Ara appears to fly in the face of market reality.

On Wednesday, Google’s Regina Dugan made the case for the effort, likening it to other moments in technology where the benefits of mass participation outweighed other factors like economics and efficiency.

“It’s all about getting more people involved in the process,” Dugan said.

Chip design, Dugan said, was once relegated to only a few hundred people until better design tools were created, an effort that had an initial cost in terms of productivity but led to far more useful semiconductors. Likewise, personal computers allowed masses to use computing, but were underpowered compared to mainframes. However, the power of software quickly made the PC one of the most powerful tools ever seen.

With Ara, though, Google is trying to apply this approach to a sector where consumers are more likely to dispose of rather than reuse the hardware. Even once-modular PCs have shifted largely to models that can’t be upgraded significantly.

“We’re going to have to make hardware design more like software design,” Dugan said. The initial Project Ara development kit that Google has released is a start, she added, but better simulation tools are needed. “We have to virtualize much more.”

So far, Ara is in the planning stages. Google has released early development tools and lined up some key partners and developers, but has yet to bring the hardware to market.

Google said Wednesday it is ready to give a few hundred developers boards with prototype modules that can be used for testing. The current-generation design has a 3G cellular modem but is far from ready for use. For example, there is a flaw in the design of the magnets that connect the device modules together.

The company is planning to do a market trial in Puerto Rico later this year to test a variety of factors including what consumers will pay and just how much choice consumers really want.

“We have a variety of unanswered questions,” said Ara project head Paul Eremenko. Google will team up with OpenMobile and Claro, two carriers that operate in Puerto Rico.

For the next version of the test hardware, which will be ready before the Puerto Rico test, Google has some significant hurdles to overcome, though they are the kinds of things that are just expected on traditional phones.

With that update, Google is planning to have a bigger battery that can be swapped on the fly, a 4G LTE modem and a camera comparable to those on high-end phones — as well as a total of 20 or 30 module options.

After all, what good is a modular smartphone if there are no modules to choose from?

It also is changing the design of the phone to allow more battery volume. The Ara design does place extra demand on the battery, with 20 percent to 30 percent of its capacity going to things like communication among the different modules. That’s obviously a big deal in a market where standard phones often fail to live up to the battery needs of customers.

On the business end, Google says it is creating a tool for consumers to build their own Ara phones and also working to provide financial guarantees to hardware makers that commit to building specific modules.

The key to Project Ara succeeding, Dugan said, is getting the project beyond Google and a handful of developers and into the commercial market where others can help shape its course. Even Google, which has been Ara’s champion, isn’t sure that it knows the best path for the device to take.

“Our desire to predict the future far exceeds our ability to do so,” Dugan said.

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