Motorola's Project Ara promises modular smartphones


— 11:03 AM on October 29, 2013

Motorola's Moto Maker program brings a hint of customization to smartphones by allowing buyers to choose the color of the front, back, and accent pieces on the Moto X handset. With Project Ara, the company aims to make smartphone customization less superficial. According to a post on the official Motorola blog, Ara is a "free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones." It's designed 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."

Project Ara is based on a structural frame, or endoskeleton, that serves as the basis for various smartphone modules. Those modules can be just about anything: displays, keyboards, batteries, processors, sensors, and the like. The goal is to allow users to mix and match various modules to create devices that suit their needs. Photography buffs could opt for a better camera, road warriors could prioritize battery capacity, and gamers could snap in a cutting-edge SoC module.

Based on the early design pictures posted on Motorola's site, it looks like multiple endoskeleton sizes are in the works. The larger ones will accommodate more modules, and most of the individual components will presumably be compatible with multiple endoskeleton sizes.

Motorola has apparently been working on Project Ara for more than a year. There's no word on when the concept could be come an actual product, but an early version of the module development kit is slated for release this winter. The blog post also says "there will be a lot more coming in the next few months." Part of that will be engagement with the community that has sprouted up around Phonebloks, a similar concept created by Dave Hakkens. Motorola is also seeking volunteers for a research scout program that will help shape Project Ara's development.

As a PC enthusiast accustomed to customizing component configs for desktop systems, I'm often frustrated by the locked-down nature of smartphone hardware. A modular platform sounds intriguing, especially since it allows components to be replaced or upgraded without buying a whole new handset.

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