Close your eyes. Imagine your dream smart phone. Motorola wants you to make it.
The Google-owned phone company announced Monday that it is working on “Project Ara”, which allows customers complete control over the creation of their smart phone, from length of the battery life to the megapixels in the camera. All users would have to do is take one part out and replace it with another, like a high tech game of Tetris.
“Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones,” writes Paul Eremenko of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group in a blog post. “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."
Mr. Eremenko says the phone will have an unchanging endoskeleton or “endo” that would hold the various parts in place. However, beyond that, the phone is totally up to the consumer. Though still in the early development stages, from what can be seen on the blog post right now the back of the phone has nine removable modules, ranging from small squares to long rectangles, as well as a front display screen that can be replaced.
The modules can be anything from a new app processor to a different display, a new keyboard to a better camera. The blog post says Motorola will be inviting developers to start creating unique modules for the Ara in coming months, which could bring some interesting customizations into the mix.
If all this sounds familiar, you’re likely thinking of Phonebloks, the “LEGO” smart phone that debuted on YouTube in early September, gaining more than 16 million views in a little over a month, and a huge community of support. Though essentially the same concept as Ara, Phonebloks sold itself as an eco-friendly way of replacing cellphone parts without sending an entire phone to the landfill.
But there won’t be any competition here. Motorola says it will be partnering with the phone makers, bringing together Motorola’s technology (and resources) with the Phonebloks community. While Ara develops in coming months, Motorola will be reaching out to Phonebloks’ supporters for feedback, through a Thunderclap campaign (a “crowdspeak” platform).
This isn't Motorola's first dip into the customizable phone market. Earlier this summer the company released it's Moto Maker service, which allowed Moto X smart phone users to customize the cosmetics of their phone, from screen saver to back cover.
So far, however, this project is squarely in the development toy bin. Neither company has said anything about release dates, potential price, or distribution, only that they are working to develop the tech. And tech experts are a bit skeptical as to how this will translate to the mass market.
Ben Wood, a mobile expert from CCS Insight told the BBC he likes the idea in theory, but doesn’t think consumers will jump to play architect with their phone any time soon.
"Creating a Lego-like phone seems on the face of it like a great idea but the commercial realities of delivering such a device are challenging. Consumers want small, attractive devices and a modular design makes this extremely difficult," he says. "It's a nice idea on paper but whether we'll ever see a commercial product remains to be seen. Right now it would be a great improvement if it was easier to replace batteries and screens but even that seems unlikely in the near term."