Motorola just announced a wild modular smartphone project that hopes to change the way we buy and use mobile devices.
Motorola’s initiative, called Project Ara, is very similar to Phonebloks, the modular smartphone concept launched in early September by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. Motorola said it’d been working on Ara for over a year, and that it teamed up with Phonebloks to popularize the concept.
Moto wants to create devices that are made of an endoskeleton, which is similar to the motherboard of a PC, and various specialized modules that users can install and replace themselves. For instance, users who want a nice camera can pick up a high-quality camera module and simply fit it on the phone. If battery life is more important, users will be able to ditch the camera module for an extra battery module. The idea is to let customers choose precisely what features they want in their smartphones, as well as to extend the lifespan of the device by making it easy to swap faulty or obsolete components.
This is how Motorola outlines the goals of Project Ara:
We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines
Project Ara will be developed in the open, says Motorola, and Phonebloks will serve as the project’s community. The Google-owned company hasn’t reveal any details on the technology behind Ara, but said it did “deep technical work”, suggesting that it already laid the technical foundations. Moto will open the Ara platform to module developers “in a few months” and hopes to release the initial version of the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK) this winter.
Project Ara is certainly inspiring, but Motorola will have to overcome huge challenges to make it a reality. Some of the most obvious problems are making various types of modules connect through a standard interface, keeping the phone’s size and weight in check, and obtaining regulatory approvals for a device with variable configuration. Still, with Google’s backing, it’s not impossible for Motorola to turn Ara from an ambitious concept to a real, albeit niche, commercial product.