During the first Project Ara developer conference on Tuesday, Ara leader Paul Eremenko said that Google's modular Gray Phone, aka Project Ara, will be made available in January 2015 and cost around $50 to build. The phone will be a boring gray because the company wants customers to fully customize the device.
On Tuesday, Eremenko said that the exoskeleton (chassis) holding all the pieces together should last around five to six years. The removable modules will stay attached to the chassis using electro-permanent magnets. All modules will use the UniPro standard to communicate with each other.
The idea behind this modular phone is revolutionary, and could change the face of the smartphone market. Instead of waiting two years for new hardware, customers would simply swap out the component they don't want for something better. How wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T will handle this type of phone remains to be seen.
Eremenko admitted that he and the other two full-time Project Ara team members have a lot of work to do between now and January. They're working with academic experts at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, as well as 3D Systems, a 3D printing company that's currently building a "massive" 3D printer for fabricating the components.
Given that the modular phones will run on Android, the team also needs to build the drivers necessary to control the modules. That, according to Eremenko, will be the last "component" on the development list. "It's true that Android does not support dynamic hardware today," said Eremenko. "The good news is that we're Google."
So what will be in the default phone? A screen, battery, processor and WiFi module. All modules will be a standard size measured in 20-millimeter units. The version shown at the conference consisted of five 2x1 unit modules and two 2x2 unit modules. The processing module was built into a 2x2 module and the Wi-Fi component into a 2x1 module.
"A grey phone could be shrink-wrapped and something you could buy at your local convenience store," said Eremenko. "You fire up your grey phone, run the Ara configurator and start purchasing modules in the marketplace."
Eremenko stressed that Gray Phone is focused on the mainstream market that is still using feature phones, not the gadget-hungry crowd that buys a new smartphone every six months. Google is hoping to bring more Android smartphones to more people while also increasing the size and competitiveness of the hardware market.
"We want to make the smartphone hardware ecosystem more like that of the software ecosystem that underpins Android," said Eremenko.