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April 21, 2014

Lattice to Provide Chips for Google Modular Phones

Lattice Semiconductor was chosen recently by Google to develop field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chips for modular smartphones based on the Project Ara initiative. The project seeks to make more phones available in the global market and encourage more participation from developers. The most burning question about Project Ara is, will it change the way smartphones are made?

Hillsboro, OR-based Lattice Semiconductor Corporation develops low power integrated circuits for mobile devices. Their offerings include FPGAs, power and clock management circuits, design software and boards for customized development.

If Google’s Project Ara doesn’t disrupt the smartphone market, it won’t be for a lack of effort. The initiative seeks to address several problems that have arisen with the availability of smartphones. As strong as the smartphone market is, over 70 percent of the world’s population does not have one.

Users have little input into the design of these devices. The modular design would allow consumers to mix and match whatever components they want in their phones. Instead of a monolithic phone body, several components are put together into an endoskeleton that keeps the separate modular components in a single unit.

Developers wanting to create Ara-compatible smartphones can download a module development kit, which is currently at version 0.10. A document is included in the kit, which contains a considerable amount of schematics, specifications for things like endoskeleton configurations and electrical diagrams.

What are the ramifications of introducing modularized smartphones to the market? Google certainly has the clout to make Ara happen, but there are obstacles in the way.

One has to do with serving the underserved. Part of the reason five billion people don’t have smartphones is that they also don’t have the infrastructure needed to support them. The cost of monolithic phones like the iPhone or high-end Samsung models is only part of the problem.

It remains to be seen who drives the modular smartphone market. Will it be hobbyists who like to tinker with electronics or end users who want a customized device? The recent struggle that Radio Shack is having converting from an electronic hobbyist store to a more conventional retailer suggests that the former is less likely. Most people like turnkey solutions.

The project is still in its infancy and would likely take years to realize many of its goals. It is a noble endeavor however, especially in its goal to bring more phones to those who can’t get them in the current marketplace. 

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

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