Motorola Wants You to Build Your Next Smartphone

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Motorola is looking to change how smartphone features are bundled by giving users the ability to create their own custom designs. They're calling the concept Project Ara, and the idea is to give users the physical building blocks to make just the smartphone they want.

Motorola's Project ARA: Build your own phoneMotorola's Project ARA: Build your own phone

Ara, which is still a concept, lets users start with a bare frame where they attach modules to give them the features they want. For example, they could choose the type of camera they want, or how bit their battery will be.

Paul Eremenko from Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects group said,

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.

The company has been talking with Dave Hakkens from Phoneblocks, which is an open source project to make exactly what Project Ara describes. Motorola hasn't even reached a point where it can offer coders and designers an alpha version of its module development kit, but the company is hoping to have that available some time this winter.

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The idea of completely modular phones is intriguing, but this doesn't sound like an idea that mainstream smartphone buyer will embrace. Choosing the right smartphone is already a complicated and daunting process. Making customers choose exactly which features their phone will have sounds like an extra layer of complication most shoppers won't want.

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but this doesn’t sound like an idea that mainstream smartphone buyer will embrace.

Exactly the point. Part of the “commodization” of computers is that they have moved away from separate motherboards and video cards and audio cards and network cards and RAM, and power supplies, and on and on. Computer-On-A-Chip is the model today. Have a system, a Phone, a Pad, a Computer, and need to upgrade, the manufacturers WANT you to replace the whole thing. Customers have embraced this idea because it makes buying things simpler. 10 or 20 years ago when I bought a Mac, or a PC for work there was a checklist of options. A few weeks ago we got an iPhone and there were jut two options, capacity and color. I’m planning on getting an iPad Air tomorrow and I have just two options, capacity and color.

It’s the way things are now.


But…but…but…Open! Choice!

It is ALWAYS better, and people ALWAYS want it!



If modular is such a great idea, where’s the modular car?

No manufacturer who wants to keep up with the competing product’s performance and efficiency will choose to go modular.  It’s all about optimizing the interaction among the major components.

On top of that, from the consumer’s point of view, you don’t get the full benefit of an SoC upgrade, say, unless you also upgrade the other components to keep up with the SoC’s enhanced performance.  So you replace the other components and before you know it you basically have a new phone, but it ended up a) being more expensive [anyone care to argue that it won’t?], and b) still suff from a few performance bottlenecks because of the unavoidable imbalances in a non-optimized component system.

Modularity in complex, mass-produced consumer products is a gimmick.


I love the idea. Give low end consumer simple, give power users choice.


I don’t see how they can do this in a very cost-effective way. Someone will have to hand-assemble each custom phone.

It might work to have a feature like a “what other customers bought” or “shared playlist” where when you go to build one you can start by picking from a list of commonly ordered configurations, or clicking a link that a friend or blogger shared about what s/he configured.  Then you can customize from that. It would allow people who want simplicity to just pick one someone else designed.  That works out to be the same as every other vendor, except that Motorola gets to see what configurations customers arrive at instead of trying to guess (or do actual research).

But I still think my idea is bad, and that Motorola’s idea might be bad, because the cost of manufacturing custom devices will probably make it not worth it.

Maybe the benefit is marketing, since people like “choice”. I myself enjoy clicking all the expensive options on Apple’s store just for fun.

Oh, and instead of an after-market case/bumper you can tell Motorola to build one right into the phone!

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