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30 October 2013

Motorola has been secretly planning an ambitious modular smartphone concept

Modular smartphones, with every piece customisable and replaceable, looked unrealistic - until now.

By Ian Steadman

The cost of constant increases in computer performance is ten million tonnes of electronic waste per year in the EU alone. Recycling that waste is a complicated, messy, dangerous, and toxic process that can often feel a bit pointless – we throw away a lot of electronic equipment that works perfectly fine, it’s just obsolete. Or, worse, we throw away a whole device when it’s just one component that has stopped working.

In the old days of desktop computers (kids, ask your parents) you could just take out one component and stick in a new one. Every component was (within limits) capable of being upgraded – I had a desktop computer for most of my teen years that, Ship of Theseus-like, was always the same PC even if I’d upgraded almost everything inside it at some point.

You can’t do that with an iPhone, or a handset by HTC, or Samsung. Motorola, though, might let you do that. It’s announced Project Ara, “a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones”. Here’s Paul Eremenko, head of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group:

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.

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The design for Project Ara consists of what we call an endoskeleton (endo) and modules.  The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. 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!

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Eremenko mentions that the Project Ara team has teamed up with Dave Hakkens, who’s responsible for the Phonebloks idea. His promotional video was something of a viral hit over the last year or so, showing off basically the same modular concept. Have a watch:

Now, that video dramatically oversimplifies the engineering challenges of making something like Phonebloks work, both in terms of software and hardware. There’s a reason a lot of people “had a good laugh” when they first saw it, to quote a user on reddit.

On the most basic level, you’ve got to make sure that the right bits of a circuit board are connected to the right bits of the circuit board it’s plugged into. In Phoneblok’s demo the different components are arranged all over the place, but it’s incredibly hard to imagine how you could get that to work without shorting everything and even possibly burning them out. In the pictures Motorola has released of Project Ara prototypes, it looks like the component sections are standardised in both size and location, which instantly makes more practical sense.

But – and it’s a big but – you’re still constrained by certain things. Just as you can’t rip a top-end moden Intel Xeon processor and stick it into a Spectrum ZX and expect it to work, you can’t use any old components and expect them to work with everything else plugged into a computer. And, even if it is compatible, you need the software – called drivers – that allows the components to talk to each other.

One of the reasons Apple takes control of everything in its devices is because it doesn’t have to worry about making unexpected combinations of components from different manufacturers work together – that’s how its designers manage to consistently create products that “just work”. Microsoft, on the other hand, spends a lot of time and money making sure that Windows will work on the millions of different machines that it could possibly be installed on. When the PC was the dominant computer form this was a great strategy because Windows would work in millions of subtly different contexts. Consumers could choose from loads of different manufacturers while knowing they’d still be getting a consistent operating system experience.

When you realise that, it makes a kind of sense that Motorola is comparing Project Ara with Android – Google and Android are to modern computing what Microsoft and Windows were to computing a decade or so ago (or at least it’s a comparison that’s often made), and Google, let’s not forget, owns Motorola.

While Motorola plans to rely on the existing Phoneblok community – though Phoneblok has made it clear that it will remain a separate organisation – the entry of a serious manufacturer, with a serious software backer, into the realm of modular smartphone design could mean that the concept becomes reality.