If you want to try out Google's Project Ara modular smartphone, start booking your flights to Puerto Rico: The island protectorate will be the location of the Project Ara "Market Pilot," where Google plans to sell an early version of the hardware from converted food trucks during the third quarter of this year.
That plan was announced at today's second annual Project Ara developer's conference at the Mountain View Googleplex, where Google's Regina Dugan and Paul Eremenko took the stage to lay out the history and goals of the initiative.
For those not keeping up, Project Ara, announced in 2013, represents Google's promise of a more open smartphone hardware platform to match the open nature of the underlying Android operating system. Users will be able to swap modules for everything from better cameras to health sensors to faster processors to suit their own tastes -- all built on a common board that provides the core orchestration technologies and keeps everything locked in place with magnets.
Google promises that some 30 partners, including Toshiba, Foxconn and Linaro, are helping to build the platform.
It's all been very mysterious, with few updates on the technology in the year since the last event, apart from the word earlier this week of a dedicated store for modules.
But the silence is broken with the word that Google will work with carriers Claro and OpenMobile to bring Project Ara to Puerto Rico. The location makes excellent sense for this pilot, Google said, as it has a diverse selection of U.S., Latino and local carriers, plus it's under FCC regulation so they can work out potential roadblocks as they arise in microcosm. In short, it's a good way to test the domestic and international markets, as well as technological issues, for Project Ara all at once. And with the aforementioned converted food trucks doing the actual selling, it has a mobile retail offering that can go, to borrow a phrase, where the people are.
Google will be watching market metrics very closely to see whether the economics of a global rollout would make sense, even as it gathers feedback on the phone itself and moves to improve it.
Which is a good thing, because the current "Spiral 2" design, as laid out by Google today, is pretty limited: The current roadmap is to give Spiral 2 the ability to make 3G phone calls and hot-swappable modules, neither of which it currently has. A "Spiral 3" design is in the works with features to make it more competitive in the larger market, like 4G LTE, a camera that people actually want to take pictures with, and longer battery life (even if you have to swap a battery module to do it).
The Spiral 3 design is what Google hopes to sell in Puerto Rico later this year.
There are still a lot of challenges ahead for Project Ara. The idea of a completely customized phone with modules for whatever you need is a good one for the developing world, where low-cost, flexible smartphones are a hot market. And it's resonating with the right people, not to mention the hardware developers who are probably salivating to get building modules.
But a still-unannounced price point for the base model and the modules alike are going to be concerns, as is security -- if you think BYOD is a pain now, wait until your employees start attaching unsigned modules to their smartphones.
For now, though, you'll have to get to Puerto Rico if you want to try building your dream phone.
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