Project Ara: Now this is what a customizable phone looks like
A couple of months ago, after weeks of buildup, Motorola took the wraps off the Moto X, a phone it touted for being customizable.
It was a gimmick. The only unusual bit of customization buyers can make is to choose different colors for the front and back case and the buttons on the phone. Otherwise you choose from two different memory sizes and get to pick your wallpaper – like any other phone.
Turns out, the Moto X was just the first stab at customization. Motorola now says it has been hard at work for about a year on what it calls Project Ara, a truly customizable phone platform.
The hardware consists of a frame that users snap modules into. “A module can be anything, from a new application processor to a new display or keyboard, an extra battery, a pulse oximeter -- or something not yet thought of,” Paul Eremenko, from the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group and the Project Ara Team, wrote in blog post late yesterday.
The idea is to keep the platform open so that anyone can develop modules that fit. That’s where this gets really interesting.
Companies could issue modules that employees can snap into their phones for all sorts of things. Modules could include scanners, employee badges that open office doors, hardware security components like a fingerprint scanner, ports to connect to peripherals like projectors, or a better speaker.
It’s unclear from the blog post how swappable the modules are designed to be. Ideally, users could insert modules that they use for work and swap them out later for modules that they want to use during their personal time. Modules could include better cameras or maybe even a hardware keyboard if you’re so inclined.
Motorola notably timed its announcement of this project for the day that an effort called Phonebloks is asking people to use social media to voice their support for a similar type of modular phone concept. Motorola said it is “engaging with” the Phonebloks community. Phonebloks is an effort aimed at reducing electronics waste by letting people swap out components like memory or processors when they fail, rather than toss the whole phone. The concept is similar to Motorola’s Project Ara.
These efforts face a lot of challenges. As Phonebloks notes on its website and video, this kind of project can’t be done by one company. It requires buy in from many of the businesses that build phone components.
Even if enough companies get together to make the necessary hardware, there will be the typical distribution challenges. Mobile operators will have to buy in, setting up the necessary support and sales structures, or the phones will only sell for unsubsidized prices, which will hurt sales when compared with the wide range of great phones available for $200 or less (subsidized). The operators have squashed Google's aspirations in the past -- and Google owns Motorola.
In fact, AT&T is still the only operator letting people customize the Moto X. And even that isn’t working so hot – I hit technical roadblocks that prevented me from walking through the customization process online this morning, using both Firefox or IE.
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