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Modular phones to cannibalise wearables space

Posted: 30 Apr 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Google  wearable  Project Ara  modular smartphone 

Google has revealed that its modular smartphone "Project Ara" is now available with Module Developers Kits (MDK). It hopes to achieve very large scale hardware developer adoption, which in effect, will allow any non-mobile company to design modules that will snap 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 startups 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 standalone 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 standalone 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 standalone 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 Unified Protocol (UniPro) 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 five 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.

Since November last year, Toshiba has been working with Google to develop new IP for the modular smartphone's endoskeleton. This includes a switch IC to be part of the endoskeleton, which would be able to redirect data from any module plugged onto the endoskeleton to any other, and two bridge ASICs which would ensure the conversion from legacy and current data formats of the modular applications to the MIPI UniPro unified interface.

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