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SDKs Emerge for Google's Project Ara Modular Smartphone

Google's ambitious plan to provide cheap, customized smartphones for 6 billion people -- including the 5 billion without one -- is receiving increasing developer support with recent developer conferences and the emergence of SDKs.

Project Ara aims to provide a phone built from modular components that users can mix and match to get the features they want, as an alternative to the one-phone-for-all approach common to most hardware vendors.

The project will feature a basic phone endoskeleton -- called an "endo" -- to which modular components can be attached, such as different displays, sensors, cameras, batteries and so on, aiming for an introductory base price of about $50.

Announced in late 2013, the project is picking up steam, giving Android developers a new option for their efforts with major developer conferences held earlier this month, new SDKs and the announcement of a pilot project in Puerto Rico.

At a Mountain View, Calif., conference held Jan. 14, eInfochips, a product engineering services company, and Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc. (TAEC), unveiled the ARTOS12 Development Kit for working with the 1x2 Module based on Toshiba chip technology.

"Smartphones double up as HD displays, music players, computers, cameras, wallets and video conferencing equipment," said TAEC exec Shardul Kazi. "Next, it may be your watch, blood-pressure monitor, memory stick, TV remote, projector and car key. While the Toshiba chips are at the heart of the Ara Smartphone providing the connectivity between the modules, the Development Kit and services can enable these new and exciting designs to get to market much quicker."

Project collaborator eInfochips will offer engineering services and expertise to help with platform porting, integration of multimedia, app development and performance optimization, among others.

The SDK joins Google's own Module Developers Kit (MDK), which was recently updated to release 0.2.

"The MDK defines the Ara platform for module developers and provides reference implementations for various design features," the Ara site says. "The Ara platform consists of an on-device packet-switched data network based on the MIPI UniPro protocol stack, a flexible power bus, and an elegant industrial design that mechanically unites the modules with an endoskeleton."

Other developer resources include GitHub pages for the "projectara/Android-wiki" (with only one entry now), the Greybus modular component communications protocol, and the UniPro firmware.

The project also has a fairly active developer forum on the Google Groups site. One developer who asked for advice on Ara development was referred to the project's "Get Involved" site, where coders can access Spiral 2 developer hardware based on the MDK 0.2 version for prototyping and app creation.

"We're also in the process of developing APIs that will let developers and artists (and developer-artists) create novel ways for users to customize their devices," the site says. "The Phone Maker API will allow digital artists to create aesthetic customization experiences for shells, and the Phone Maker API will allow developers to help users create functionally customized devices with just a few clicks."

Industry observers expect development efforts to really heat up after the Puerto Rico trial in expectation of a possible project launch this year.

"Throughout 2015, the Project Ara team will be working on a series of alpha and beta MDK releases," Google said. "We welcome developer input to the MDK: either through the Ara Module Developers mailing list/forum or at one of the series of Developers Conferences. Additionally, if you'd like to create a reference module design, please get in touch!"

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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