Google thinks modularity may succeed now thanks to the shrinking cost and size of the underlying electronics and because innovation in conventional mobile hardware is slowing down. Also, by fostering open hardware innovation in smartphones and other mobile devices, Google believes it could gain footholds for its software and services in fresh markets and fresh industries.
“We believe that the smartphone hardware ecosystem should be, and can be, a lot more like the Android app ecosystem: with a low barrier to entry, lots and lots of developers, and faster, richer innovation,” says Paul Eremenko, a former office head at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who leads the project.
The hardware ecosystem Eremenko envisions would be entirely open. Google would provide the endoskeleton, which has eight rear slots for modules, two front-facing slots for components such as a screen and a button panel, and onboard power and data transmission. Parts could be replaced or upgraded without discarding the rest of the phone, and the finished device could be adapted to serve any number of special functions—professional photography, environmental sensing, medical monitoring—depending on what hardware emerges.
Phone backbone: Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone project starts with an aluminum endoskeleton, roughly the size of an average smartphone, with eight slots for hardware modules. The endoskeleton can send or receive data or power through an onboard network. Google is also working on a larger “phablet” size and a smaller one, roughly the size of typical music players.
The size, power, and weight penalty that comes with making something modular is now under 25 percent, a level that is an acceptable tradeoff for the benefits that flexibility will bring
In January the Chinese smartphone giant ZTE proposed design concepts of quasi-modular phones, called Eco-Mobius. ZTE’s concept is more limited. It allows users to change only four types of components—screen, battery, camera, and a combination of processor and memory—but not to add new kinds of components.