Moto Goes Modular

Sarah Thomas
Que Sera Sarah
Sarah Thomas, Director, Women in Comms

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Consumers can swap in and out modules when something new comes along, so their phone never gets out of date.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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