Moto Goes Modular

Motorola is hoping to do to smartphones what Android did to their operating systems: make them free, open, and driven by support from third-party developers. For consumers, this vision also includes making them endlessly customizable.

The handset maker hasn't made as much noise as expected since it was acquired by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) last year. It unveiled its first customizable handset -- the Moto X -- recently but the announcement of Project Ara Tuesday feel like its first truly Google-esque move. (See AT&T to Offer Build-Your-Own Moto X.)

Ara is Motorola's hardware platform to build highly modular smartphones. Run out of its Advanced Technology and Projects group, the idea is that Moto will build the endoskeleton of the phone, or what holds all the other modules in place, and developers will supply all the modules -- anything from new applications processors to new displays or keyboards, extra batteries, or pulse oximeters -- that are constantly replaceable.

Consumers can swap in and out modules when something new comes along, so their phone never gets out of date. You know how operators are offering the ability to upgrade devices more frequently? It's like that, but it's happening on your current device, meaning you may never have to buy a new one.

"Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones," Paul Eremenko from the Project Ara Team writes in a blog post announcing the initiative. "To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it's made of, how much it costs, and how long you'll keep it."

Project Ara
Breaking the phone down to its endoskeleton and modules lets developers get creative on what goes where, why, and when.
Breaking the phone down to its endoskeleton and modules lets developers get creative on what goes where, why, and when.

The handset maker has been working on Project Ara for over a year and recently brought in Phonebloks, a company with a similar aim, to have access to its developer community. Eremenko says that it will send an invitation to developers in a few months to start creating modules for Ara, and he anticipates an alpha release of the Module Developer's Kit sometime this winter.

We've seen smartphones evolve into several form factors since their initial debut. It's been all about qwerty keyboards then touch screens, being the Swiss-army knife of mobile devices to performing dedicated functions well, from being huge to small to huge again. Could the next wave of innovation come from making them endlessly upgradeable and customizable?

It seems a bit far-fetched, but maybe just crazy enough to work. There will always be some basics consumers want in their phone, but -- on top of that -- it could be nice to extend the life of a handset without sacrificing new functionality. Of course, the (current) trend in smartphones is falling prices, so it'll be interesting to see how these new modules are priced and if it at some point it gets cost prohibitive to continue with the razor/razor blade model.

It's obviously still early days, but whether it succeeds or not, it's good to see this kind of innovation in the hardware market. And, who knows -- if Project Ara plays its cards right, the new catchphrase could become, "there's a module for that."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas 11/1/2013 | 11:45:23 AM
Re: Reactions? Not the big players, that I know of. There were some innovative startups, like Phonebloks doing it though. Google partnering with it definitely gives its brainchild credence in the market.
Sarah Thomas 11/1/2013 | 11:44:16 AM
Re: Reactions? Great ideas, Mordy. It could certainly make things interesting in the very customizable connected home and M2M space.
F,Alpizar 10/31/2013 | 11:56:01 PM
Re: connecting the unconnected It seems a great way create new devices.  For example, a gaming device or a radiation detector.  Business can also use it for signature pads, and as the article says, create your own device with whatever you want.  
DOShea 10/29/2013 | 5:36:42 PM
Re: Reactions? Is anyone else in devices doing anything like this? If not, I wonder if a couple other struggling device players out there could do something similar to jump-start their comebacks, or if Googorola has cornered the market on user-customizable, modular phone design.
pzernik 10/29/2013 | 2:54:09 PM
À la carte devices I can definately see how this would reduce the costs to MotoGoog in development of new products and have an extra revenue stream coming from these 3rd parties that would pay MotoGoog an upfront royalty fee as well as pay $$ per device sold.

My guess the MtoM marketplace would welcome this initiative in that it should especially accelerate the development of new and diverse MtoM devices.

If they see this as akin to a consumer going to a 3rd party (garage) instead of back to the dealer when they need new tires for their car....then how does this work? My phone doesn't have anyting like tires....



MordyK 10/29/2013 | 2:31:37 PM
Re: Reactions? I think this approach is very interesting for alot of reason's but less so for the purpose of purely redesigning a cellphone, although it will definitely be interesting to see some of the tweaks/implementations.

Cellphone's are generally well suited for the general population, whereby 99% percent of customers find a phone that fits their "requirements" (supposition).

Where I see this going is in 2 directions:

1. The digital home will mean that people need different capabilities for different devices based on their individual use and  homes design, as well as matching the individual customer's home decor. This lays the groundwork for that capability.

2. the second issue is for people that need to "consolidate" their personal device portfolio. which is what the smartphone effectively did for the PDA, phone and music player.

An example of a person that would need this would be a diabetic who can have a Glucometer module embedded in their phone, a doctor creating a larger device that combines multiple mobile medical devices to create a "mobile clinic" especially in the developing world. There are many use cases but the point is that the combination of non-generic mobile hardware will have a hard time being embedded in a general purpose smartphone for both financial and space reasons.

The Phonebloks/MotoAra "There's a module for that" addresses these requirements.

This is an article I saw a while back that introduced me to Phonebloks and illustrates just how technically difficult this is.
Liz Greenberg 10/29/2013 | 1:52:13 PM
Re: connecting the unconnected I think the weight of Google will play heavily on the success.  Google has a tendency to make things fun, sexy and well thought out. They have a loyal following and I am sure that they will make sure that there will be something that only the Moto brand has...mostly open but not 100% open.  Maybe in the software like they already do with Android to keep true to the goal of the modular hardware. Who knows, they may just keep the phone modular but all Moto...keep other lagging?
Sarah Thomas 10/29/2013 | 1:14:49 PM
Re: connecting the unconnected That's true, Liz -- less overall demand. I doubt we'll see Moto only go this route in part because of that, although it's handset business is struggling. Ever see someone with a Moto X?? Maybe this will be its big gamble.
Liz Greenberg 10/29/2013 | 1:10:36 PM
Re: connecting the unconnected Sarah, if this type of phone (tablet in the future?) were to really take off among manufacturerss, then people who completely replace their phones every 6, 12 or 18 months will now only replace a section of it.  Maybe a new process or a new skin.  Now the folks who were making so many new phones are only making a fraction of them while making a fraction of replacement parts. This means that up and down the manufacturing chain demand will be decreased.  This means that either companies will trim down or disappear.  It also means that the parts will become even more commoditized and presumably cost less.  Otherwise, we are still where we are with the amount of waste currently produced and the project is for naught.
Sarah Thomas 10/29/2013 | 1:02:36 PM
Re: connecting the unconnected Good point, Liz. It's certainly a greener option than current handsets. The waste from all the upgrades is a big problem.

How do you think it will effect the supply chain? I think it'll change how business models work, but hardware makers are already essentially building modular phones, sourcing chips and parts from others, but this just puts it in the hands of consumers to make the decisions on what stays and what goes. It would also give new developers more opportunities, so the big guys might be worried. I don't know if this will become a mass change in how smartphones are built though. But, we'll see what how the market responds.
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