Motorola Teams With Phonebloks on Lego-Like Project Ara

As iPhone owners feel pressured to upgrade, Motorola has introduced Ara, asking: What if we could swap components, instead of whole phones?

Google-owned Motorola is ready to evolve well past customizing button colors and plastic shells. How about custom-selecting all the components of your phone, and swapping out the parts that stop working well for upgrades?

Project Ara, Motorola said in an Oct. 28 blog post, is some new thinking about how to bring to the benefits of an open hardware ecosystem to the masses.

Motorola explained in the post:

"Led by Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects [MATP] group, Project Ara is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. 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.

"Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers and their phones. 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 relies on what Motorola calls an endoskeleton (or endo) and modules. The endo is the base, and the modules—which can be anything from an extra battery to a camera, a new display, a processor and who knows what else—connect to it. It's hard to resist a Legos analogy, in which the endo is the flat, green base and the modules are the blocks snapping onto it.

In the post, Paul Eremenko, writing on behalf of MATP and the Project Ara team, says the team recently met Phonebloks creator Dave Hakkens.

Android Police, in a very good post and follow-up, laughs off the idea of Phonebloks—which like Aria involves snapping phone components to a base—while acknowledging it's a fantastic idea.

"If you never use Bluetooth or WiFi but you listen to music all the time, toss out the extra wireless modules and swap in a bigger speaker. If you use almost zero local storage but you tend to spend days away from a wall outlet, plug in a tiny 2GB storage module and a massive battery pack," wrote Jeremiah Rice, imagining the possibilities.

Motorola's Eremenko says its shares the Phonebloks vision.

"We've done deep technical work. Dave created a community. The power of open requires both," wrote Eremenko. "So we will be working on Project Ara in the open, engaging with the Phonebloks community throughout our development process, as well as asking questions to our Project Ara research scouts."

Ara Scouts, Motorola explains on a separate site, will collaborate with Motorola as it does research to "shape the direction of Project Ara."

Motorola is looking for volunteers, and for people to nominate others, particularly those in emerging markets.

"We're especially interested in people in the remote corners of the globe who don't have a smartphone (or a phone at all). Can you be their voice?" asks Moto.

In the coming months, Motorola plans to invite developers to start creating modules, and "sometime this winter" it plans to release an alpha version of a Module Developer's Kit (MDK).

The Opposite of Apple

The idea of potentially keeping a phone going forever—of swapping out parts, instead of swapping phones—is likely to be positioned as a decidedly un-Apple idea. Not only because Apple demands total control over its devices, their components and its software, but because of a recent trend many iPhone users have noticed.

Owners of older iPhones who upgraded their devices to iOS 7 have noticed an increase in lag times and crashes. The new operating system was designed with the speedy new processor in the iPhone 5S in mind (if not also the slightly slower processors in the iPhone 5 and 5C).

"At first, I thought it was my imagination. Around the time the iPhone 5S and 5C were released, in September, I noted that my sad old iPhone 4 was becoming a lot more sluggish," Catherine Rampell wrote in an Oct. 29 piece in The New York Times Magazine.

"Apple phone batteries, which have a finite number of charges in them to begin with, were drained by the new software," she continued. "So I could pay Apple $79 to replace the battery, or perhaps spend 20 bucks more on an iPhone 5C. It seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade."

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