While those interested in the Internet of Things may gravitate to Ara’s pack-and-switch network, Eremenko said the Ara team focused exclusively on creating the platform for smartphones.
“We certainly encourage the other things, the crossover opportunities. But the fear was that if we tried to make the Interest of Things, we wouldn’t make anything great; we’d have something that was mediocre in a number of different ways.”
Still, Ara’s modular nature could blur the line between handsets and IoT devices, spurring development. One official from American Airlines attended the conference thinking of a custom device for airline employees. A modular device could allow for translation applications, easy check-ins, and medical assistance for flight attendants, replacing bulky systems that aren’t tailored to a crew’s specific needs.
Project Ara development to use diagram.
But Google still has a way to go before it reaches critical mass for its developer ecosystem by November 2014. Attendees questioned the weight and price point of modules, as well as where they could be purchased.
“It’s an interesting concept, but it has a lot of holes,” a designer who wished to remain anonymous said. “[Google] doesn’t yet have any solutions, they’re asking developers to find the solutions.”
The designer also questioned the cost of individual chipsets, noting that it might be expensive for developers to create multiple modules or mass produce their products. Still, LG Electronics senior engineer Wooram Lee said the modular nature of Ara could be a threat to his company’s presence as a manufacturer.
“This is an opportunity because Google is giving developers lead time to develop something,” Lee told EE Times. “Small companies can have success in making modules… but it depends on purchasing power.”
Rather than manufacturing and purchase price, Femtoduino's Wade said, the turnaround time between hardware iterations may be the biggest challenge for makers. Formatting Arduino code, sensors, and motors to connect with Ara would be a huge step in developing modules, he said.
Developing together and pairing phones in “friend mode” will be key to curbing a “paradox of choice” where consumers (and developers) are overwhelmed by too many options, Ara team leads said. Such open-source development will be key in emerging markets, which are often more tech savvy but lack easy access to mobile devices, design director Daniel Makoski told EE Times.
“Maybe the MDK will be pretty robust. It seems like they’re doing the release early, release often,” Wade said. “Hardware is complicated, and that’s why open-source hardware is so big. Everyone is leaning on each other, learning from each other.”
Ara officials expect to release the next MDK update, .15, in May with MDK .2 released in May 2015.
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times