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Summary:

Modular phone concepts aren’t new so why is Motorola attempting Project Ara: A new effort to let people create phones with little building blocks of hardware? It’s about Google trying to connect 6 billion people to the internet — and Google’s services.

project ara modules

Want to build your own phone with modular blocks of functionality? That may not sound appealing until you think of the possibilities. You can upgrade your phone’s screen from 720p to 1080p, for example, instead of buying a whole new phone. Looking to add a better camera to your handset? Swap out an image sensor module for a better one. The idea is a sound one, but it comes down to execution. Enter Motorola’s Project Ara, an open hardware platform to bring this idea to the masses.

project ara phone

Motorola has been working on Project Ara for a year and is ready to start getting feedback from what the company calls “Ara Scouts”: You can sign up here if interested.

The idea of a modular phone isn’t new. Back in 2008, Modu had a similar idea and product. Modu was centered around a small cellular phone module that could be inserted into sleeves or other devices such as a camera or music player. Phonebloks is another, more recent, idea that’s even closer to what Motorola is doing. Take a peek at the idea:

Motorola is partnering with the Phonebloks community, which is a smart idea: Why reinvent the wheel when you can work together on a similar effort with shared goals? And what are the goals of Project Ara? Here’s a summary of what Motorola is trying to do:

Led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects 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.

It’s exactly this type of effort that begins to answer the question, “Why did Google spend $12.5 billion to purchase Motorola?”

The fact is: Google isn’t a consumer electronics company. It does make some hardware but it generally partners with hardware makers on design and assembly. With Motorola, it gained a division that can design and build hardware. Not necessarily to compete against its Android partners but for a way to bring its ideas to life in the form of hardware. That’s what Project Ara represents: Google’s vision coming to life.

With the backing of Google, I think Motorola — in conjunction with Phonebloks — has the best chance yet at bringing a low cost modular phone to the masses. With Motorola’s hardware chops and Google’s vision — not to mention its broad base of developers — all the right pieces to the puzzle are there. No, the end result may not be a product that will take off in areas where smartphones already have a foothold, but it can surely help extend Google’s reach in areas where smartphones are still far and few between. And that’s what this is all about, based on this statement on the project’s web page: “How do we bring the benefits of an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?”

Google has already made great headway from the first billion smartphone users. Now it wants to connect and engage with the remaining 6 billion. Consider Project Ara another way for Google to do just that. Will the project be successful? Only time will tell, but since it’s another way for Google to get people connected to the internet (see also: Project Loon) — and therefore to Google apps and services — this is one modular phone project that won’t easily be allowed to fail.

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  1. it doesn’t lower the cost of innovation. exactly how would it do that if a part / piece would be priced by the manufacturer at say hundreds of dollars more to make? component pieces for a dslra camera such as the wifi adapter for Nikon cameras cost $50 and up for a small USB dongle. camera components would cost you at least a hundred or so more. that’s not to consider the cost of the RAM, battery, sensors, etc. your “lego” phone would end up costing you a helluva lot more than a phone you own now. having to wait two years to upgrade helps keep a person financially sensible and reduce electronic waste.

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