image courtesy of Motorola Blog
The “build-your-own” concept has always been around for years. From IKEA’s furniture to kit cars, consumers are given a chance to choose what they want: color, style, and make. With this concept in mind, Dave Hakkens came up with an idea: to design a phone that is modular enough for customization. He called his concept “Phonebloks,” which looks like a set of Lego bricks but functions as a smartphone. Each “blok” contains the phone’s screen, battery, camera, gyroscope, or Wi-Fi receiver that can be moved easily. Hakkens said that “with your bike you repair the tire; you don’t throw the bike away, but for some reason this is what we do with electronics.” Thanks to online crowd-speaking platforms like Thunderclap, Phonebloks’ video went viral and it had reached 950,000 supporters. His vision didn’t just catch the eye of consumers; it also caught the eye of mobile manufacturing giant, Motorola.
Wanting to produce the ultimate smartphone, Motorola decided to collaborate with Hakkens and realize the dream of a modular phone. In a Verizon Wireless feature article, it revealed that Project Ara is “a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.” The team behind the project also took inspiration from the Android mobile operating system. This will allow hardware developers to create components that will work with Ara. Moto X’s Moto Maker was the company’s first try in giving consumers the power to customize their phones. Aside from the customization and upgrade potential, it aims to be “the phone that you can keep for the rest of your life.”
Collaboration is Key
Seeing how Hakkens created a massive and engaged online community for his project, Motorola saw its potential. When people ask him why he chose them over other manufacturers, he said that “they have been developing phones for over 40 years and actually made the first mobile phone and was recently bought by Google.” Also, the company has the technological resources to make this project happen. “We decided to work together to build this phone platform. Phonebloks wants to stay an independent organization that is why we ask for donations.”
Challenges of a Modular Phone Design
Chris Green, a Technology Analyst at the Davies-Murphy Group, believes that build-your-own mobile devices are “gimmicks.” “I don’t see this as being a big deal. It is not responding to any particular demand and there is no real benefit to assembling your own device.” Green said. Since computer-related hardware are becoming cheaper, DIY IT (do-it-yourself IT) has seen better days. Another challenge would be the device’s thickness, since most phones right now are 7-millimeters thick. CSS Insight’s mobile expert, Ben Wood also agrees that a chunky and blocky phone may not appeal to the mass market. “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 added. However, Bruce Harvey, an Electrical Engineer from Florida State University, said that the Ara “is a technical challenge but an achievable one, if the components are designed to work with the same signaling system.”
What does the Future Hold for Project Ara?
Since it’s an open-source project, it may appeal only to a small group of people. But by adding an environmental-awareness appeal to it, it may encourage a larger consumer base. Any project of this complexity and magnitude needs an active community and a sturdy platform. Hakkens also explained that the company is really committed in allowing people to pitch in their ideas. “What we are most excited about is that they can’t make bad moves when the world is paying attention. The crowd can influence the direction of the project.” Designed with sliding tracks, phone components like the RAM, camera, GPU, and processor can be easily removed. These types of projects appeal to us because we become attached to our devices. It’s easier to let go of old parts but not the entire phone. Project Ara wants us to have our phones till we’re old and gray.
Paul Eremenko of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects Group said that the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK) will be released later this year. They’re also encouraging people to be Ara Scouts and help them learn how consumers make choices.