Before Project Ara launches globally, it’s headed to Puerto Rico

Project Ara head Paul Eremenko revealed that the first “market pilot” for Google’s ambitious modular phone is taking place in Puerto Rico later this year at the second Project Ara developers conference in Mountain View, California on Wednesday.

The market pilot will need to be successful before Google launches Project Ara globally. Unfortunately, the only Google-provided timeframe for the market pilot is “2015.” And there’s a lot of work to even get to that point.

The prototype Project Ara device being demoed at the conference is codenamed Spiral 2. Before the market pilot launches, the team will first need to hit goals related to “Spiral 3” — which include fixing a magnet issue, significantly improving battery life, and adding support for 4G LTE networks.


According to Eremenko, a Spiral 3 prototype will “match or exceed the performance of a state-of-the-art phone.” One of the main goals is a daylong battery life, but the Ara team will allow itself one battery hotswap to get there. Currently, the Ara design team has developed 11 module reference designs, and by the time Spiral 3 is finished, Google hopes to have 30 modules that work with the platform.


Eremenko offered a few reasons why Google chose Puerto Rico. It uses FCC regulations for radio frequency signals. It’s a “mobile-first” country, with the majority of its citizens accessing the internet through smartphones and tablets. Both major Latin American carriers and American carriers operate networks in Puerto Rico.

The initial Ara market pilot is partnering with [company]OpenMobile[/company] and [company]Claro[/company] on the carrier side so far. There are also a few interesting distribution strategies Google is planning to try in Puerto Rico. For instance, Google will have a “food truck” go around the island to give users hands-on time with Ara.


According to Eremenko, the reason [company]Google[/company] is launching Project Ara in a small market first is to answer (major) questions ahead of a full, global launch. The data provided by the Puerto Rican market will help Google understand how to price, package, and sell Ara phones and modules on a larger scale — after all, nobody has ever tried anything like this before. For instance, Eremenko says that one issue that the pilot could address is that consumers think they want choice, but seize up when presented with choices and then later have remorse about making the wrong one. For Project Ara, which offers significantly more configuration options than, say, an iPhone, the paradox of choice looms large.

As had been reported previously, there will be an Android app used to configure modules and order new ones, with Google handling many of the logistic concerns about delivering modules to the user. Google’s even offering other concessions to early-stage developers, such as volume assurances, so they’re not holding the bag in the case of a failed pilot.

The rest of the conference (which is being livestreamed) will focus on the technical knowledge needed to develop a working Ara module, including information about the latest version of the protocols, hardware, and standards the Google team has developed.






Project Ara will offer at least three chip choices, including a Tegra K1

Ahead of the second Project Ara developer’s conference in January, Paul Ermenko, project head, has shared a few more details about what to expect from Google’s ambitious modular phone on his Google Plus page.

One tidbit Eremenko revealed is that the Project Ara team has been working on a module that uses an [company]Nvidia[/company] Tegra K1 processor, which comes from same line of chips that are used in Google’s Nexus 9 tablet. [company]Google[/company] calls it an “application processor” or an “AP,” and it’s a module which houses the CPU, the GPU, RAM, cellular modem, and other core system components. There will also be an AP made with Marvell’s silicon, a company that makes decidedly lower-powered chipsets, including those that power Google’s Chromecast. The [company]Marvell[/company] AP will use the PXA1928, which is a 64-bit quad-core chip based on ARM Cortex A53 cores.

These two new chip module reference designs are in addition to a previously-announced Rockchip-based AP expected to be demoed in early 2015. These three chips will likely cost varying amounts, which fits in with the Project Ara philosophy of offering modular choice for devices starting as inexpensive as $50. But the Tegra K1-based AP indicates that there will be Project Ara options that emphasize performance, as well.

Based on job listings and previous statements made by team members, it looks like Project Ara is gearing up for a “market pilot” next year, although that doesn’t necessarily mean modular phones will be ready for mainstream consumers — not tinkerers — by next holiday season.

There are still several significant challenges that need to be addressed: The devices are still in prototype form, and only in the 2nd half of 2014 did the team demonstrate a Project Ara device successfully booting up in public. In addition, the key to Project Ara is the modules it will work with — whether they house improved processors, cameras, or even unusual sensors like blood glucose meters. The module store is in the works, but it’s still not a concept that’s been tried or tested before. Next year is shaping up to be a key period for Google’s modular phone experiment.