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Google's Project Ara could sidestep wearable devices

30 Apr 2014  | Julien Happich

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Google's modular smartphone

With Module Developer Kits (MDK) available, Google's modular smartphone, Project Ara, aims at large-scale hardware developer adoption. This will allow non-mobile companies to design modules that will fit into the smartphone's endoskeleton.

For any semiconductor chip vendor, for any sensor manufacturer, without having to competitively fight their way into new "design wins" with one of the top leading smartphone manufacturers, there will always be room into swappable modules for the Ara modular smartphone.

In fact, for start-ups and non-mobile companies, such a modular concept dramatically lowers the barrier to entry into smartphones, since any given module could be produced in any given volume without any binding contract to whoever would produce the connecting endoskeleton.

Depending on the modules they would plug into the backplane, users could decide to turn their phone into a DJ set, or make it more of a portable medical analysis instrument, or just boost the augmented reality or gaming capability of their smartphone with dedicated dual camera and graphics processing modules.

For many manufacturers of wearable devices, the wide adoption of an open-source modular smartphone concept could mean a shift from selling stand-alone products (often used as smartphone peripherals anyway) to simplified swappable modules performing the same functionalities, but only when needed.

The Ara modular smartphone could certainly kill a fair number of stand-alone wearable applications, or it could boost differentiation, enticing companies not only to building their original full spec wearable product, but also a trimmed-down version (no screen, less battery, less processing power) that plugs into the modular smartphone. Users could then decide what's fit for them and how much extra they are willing to pay for yet another battery-operated stand-alone device.

By publicly adopting the MIPI UniPort-M protocol for its Project Ara Module Developers Kit (MDK), Google is further simplifying the design entry into its modular smartphone. The MIPI UniPort-M interface is a combination of the MIPI UniPro (Unified Protocol) transport layer with the MIPI M-PHY.

The interface optimised for short-reach high bandwidth chip-to-chip communications in mobile platforms is conceived as a universally capable channel.

It is hailed by the MIPI Alliance as an interface designed to be implemented far beyond smartphones, ready to bridge the smartphone's display and communication capabilities to peripheral applications and wearables (and vice-versa) from many industries, including from the automotive world, the medical world, and from the industrial world.

If Project Ara ever meets Google's target to put modular smartphones in the hands of 5 billion people, with many more pluggable modules to customise them, that will make an awful lot of MIPI UniPort-M interfaces to ship.

A partner of the project, Toshiba sees there a huge ASIC market for MIPI UniPro-compliant bridge ICs.

Senior VP & Technology Executive at Toshiba America's System LSI Group, Shardul Kazi presented the company's Ara roadmap during the Google Project Ara Developer Conference held mid-April. Kazi sees Project Ara as an opportunity to expand Toshiba's presence in the mobile market.

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