Google’s next major smart phone project won’t just be competing for the same customers as Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S5, or even Amazon’s rumored upcoming smart phone.
Google is aiming for the “next 5 billion” mobile consumers who are poised to jump from feature phones to low-cost smart phones as the technology and mobile access expand to further corners of the globe than ever before. The idea was laid out at a developer’s conference for Project Ara, the build-your-own smart phone pioneered by Motorola and viral start-up Phonebloks, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Project Ara phone, which Google is aiming to release publicly in January 2015, won’t hinge on packed specs or flashy exteriors. In fact, developers gave it the nickname “Gray Phone” because it is literally a blank slate that can be catered to the needs of a specific market or consumer.
"It's called the ‘gray phone’ because it's meant to be drab gray to get people to customize it,” says Ara team leader Paul Eremenko.
Project Ara is all about customization. Essentially the phone will have a basic structure with up to eight interchangeable modules. The idea is that consumers can create the phone they truly want by swapping out modules to suit their needs. Do you rely on your phone’s camera? Insert the 14-megapixel camera. Want extra long battery life? Swap the camera for a durable battery. Your phone, your way.
Accordingly, the base phone will run much cheaper and last longer than current consumer smart phones. The base of the phone will cost $50 to make, and developers are hoping to keep the cost down in order to reach emerging markets and encourage customization. Ideally, the shell of the phone will last five to six years. It will run on Android, which currently doesn’t support a modular system, but Mr. Eremenko points out that Google has made this an operating system priority.
Project Ara is a part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, which generally delves into the more experimental ideas, such as Project Tango, a mobile device that has a sense of time and movement. Though not many of these ideas have made it to market yet, the program leads for Ara are Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) alums. Some say this indicates they are bringing a practical philosophy to the development process.
Google also recently announced it acquired solar-powered drone maker Titan Aerospace, which has the potential to provide Internet access to remote areas by hovering above regions for up to five years.
There is a lot to be done on both fronts, however. Project Ara already has two more developer conferences scheduled in the next few months.
In the meantime, the next 5 billion may want to start thinking of what modules will click into their future smart phone.