Toshiba signed for Google's Project Ara May 21 2014

Japanese chipmaker reported to be preferred supplier of processors to power Google's modular handset's 'endoskeleton'

By Caroline Gabriel

With Project Ara, Google hopes to do for handsets what Ikea did for furniture, moving the market from high design to flatpack. From next year, it aims to harness emerging technologies like 3D printing to offer a fully customized design, in which a smartphone is assembled to order from a set of modules. If this catches on with consumers, it could alter the economics of handsets, and break down Apple's iron-fist model, which relies on tight control of a small set of suppliers. Google aims to play up its self-proclaimed open credentials by welcoming third party modules, a move which could create a hardware version of the app store revolution.

But this is still hardware, with all the costs that implies, so there will have to be some core components which the search giant and its partners must purchase in massive volumes, in order to make the handsets the high volume, low cost devices envisaged by Google. These components may not come from the suppliers which currently dominate the cellphone supply chain, and opportunities may well open up, not just for new mobile entrants like Google's printing partner, 3D Systems, but for established firms which have not profited significantly from handsets so far.

Japan's Toshiba is reported to be one firm in that category. Although a giant in mobile memory, and a frequent development partner with the Japanese mobile operators, Toshiba has otherwise been a bit player in smartphones. But according to reports by Japanese news agency Nikkei, the company has been chosen to supply three types of processors for the Ara modules and for the 'endoskeleton' - the common framework, which will cost from only about $50, and into which the various separately priced modules will slot.

In Google's concept, users will be able to add between five and 10 modules, according to the size of the endoskeleton. The big new processor opportunity lies in the chips to control the flow of data and signalling between the different modules, a process which will vary depending on the units chosen and their functionality. Options might include apps or specialist processors, cameras, swap-out batteries and many others.

Nikkei says Toshiba began working with Google six months ago on Project Ara - which grew out of an R&D exercise at the latter's Motorola Mobility subsidiary, one which the parent firm will retain once Motorola is sold to Lenovo. The report says the company "was approved as a preferred supplier for this line, the only Japanese company to be given that status", and will be the "sole chipmaker for the phone about a year after its roll-out" (in the endoskeleton, though Toshiba is also expected to provide some chips for certain modules).

Sample shipments of the silicon will start this fall, with mass production to begin early next year.