Motorola’s Project Ara promises modular smartphones

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.

Comments closed
    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 9 years ago

    I’d start with the best screen, add the best CPU/GPU, an amazing camera, small built in storage with a micro SD card slot supporting up to 128 gb cards.

    That last bit is the thing missing from premium products right now.

    • chµck
    • 9 years ago

    What needs does this modular design fulfill that isn’t already on the market?

    • bthylafh
    • 9 years ago

    What is it with nerds and being unable to see that you’re not the market, but other people have needs different from your own?

    • PainIs4ThaWeak1
    • 9 years ago

    Nokia 5110 – Batteries with lights, antennas with the same, screen holograms. Everything you could possibly EVER need.

    • Vulk
    • 9 years ago

    I see two major issues with this:

    1) What is the selling point? I can swap out components? How much more am I going to have to pay to get that ability? Who is that going to appeal to? It’s going to be a niche product by definition, the only question is how tiny that niche will be.

    2) What are you giving up to get this ability? There is a reason that everything is being moved onto a SOC. The power savings and speed of execution is outrageous. That’s why in many ways a tiny under powered ARM chip can out perform my workstation with the Xeon processor for enough tasks for it to be kind of embarrassing. This is going in the exact opposite direction as the rest of the industry. Which would be great if it brought tangible benefits.

    In a few years, once we hit the silicon wall, and can’t continue to improve process tech something like this is just going to look uglier and uglier as the only performance gains will come from tighter integration and the optimizations that will bring.

    Also given how contract subsidies work, the primary advantage to this: The ability to just upgrade parts of your phone are fairly well moot anyway. It’s not like you’re getting a discount for not taking a contract on any of the providers except T-Mobile, so you’re basically giving them money so you can buy a gimmick phone. They’re probably not going to subsidize modules, although they’ll be happy to sell them to you in their stores for a hefty mark up.

    I see the market for this being limited to a few hundred thousand users. I see a home-brew club building up around it, but I don’t see it hitting critical mass, and creating the kind of market place that would attract third party module makers, which is where things would get interesting.

    Sorry, as much as I like this as a thought exercise. I just don’t see a market for this, which will kill it faster than any technical limitation ever will, which means everyone who buys one better like the statement they’re making because otherwise they’re just taking their money and lighting a fire under it.

    Which means this is the ultimate vapor product.

    Go Moto.

    • Horshu
    • 9 years ago

    Yep, you’re correct. It was the Modu.

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    urgh no thanks
    iphones are waterproof? last i heard they are not

    id rather keep my defy and keep upgrading it with cyanogenmod (which has been pretty awesome – i doubt many phones would survive what it has been through)

    and why do people not get that i just like the idea of building my own phone? i like the fact its like a pc where i can pick and choose the parts i want

    its the same reason i dont buy a dell every couple of years

    • peartart
    • 9 years ago

    It sounds like you want an iPhone with a case with a battery pack.

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    so i customize it how i like? as i said i like the idea of customizinf it how i like
    i want a small screen/phone 3.5-4 inches max with a decent cpu and a massive battery that is hopefully waterproof dustproof and shockproof and has an awesome camera if i was to change my phone

    im hoping i would be able to just build it with project ara

    trying to find a phone that has these things has been a pain when shopping for phones (im not a phone geek so i dont know if there is one out there honestly)

    but one of the things i really like is being able to just build my own phone the way i want and being able to upgrade it when i want, just like a pc – i love being able to build my own pc how i want when i want

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    Cool. The rest of us will just sell our old phones, buy the latest tech, and save time and money.

    If all you use it for is basic stuff, then why is the modularity even an advantage?

    • Aliasundercover
    • 9 years ago

    Do any present Motorola phones so much as allow you to add a memory card or swap a battery? Those two are the biggest payback for the least effort yet they are rare. It isn’t engineering difficulty which makes them rare but greed.

    I wish this effort success but it is very ambitious. The mechanical design will need to be something special. It would be worth the extra money to me but I wonder about the guys at the top with their strategic business models pulling the strings.

    • moose17145
    • 9 years ago

    I am sooooo extremely interested in this… im set to upgrade next summer. Hopefully this is out and ready by then!

    • Arclight
    • 9 years ago

    What if they adopted a few standard form factor cases and the parts would be enclosed in said standardized case. Sort of life a desktop case.

    • Horshu
    • 9 years ago

    No, it was an older phone, from the 2000s. The core was a very basic phone – maybe 2-3 inches tall – and you could attach other stuff to it, like a camera, or a bigger screen. Maybe the Willcom or the Modu?

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    I don’t think Atrix really qualifies.

    I think Horshu is talking about a small Israeli company… don’t remember the name right now, and too lazy to google

    • ludi
    • 9 years ago

    This. It looks neat when sketched up in SolidWorks like an I&E student’s senior design project, but size, battery life, and cost will be the eternal enemy.

    • chµck
    • 9 years ago

    That’s not as failproof as the cat module.
    How high would it have to be dropped from to activate the airbag?
    With the cat module, you would only need about 30cm: [url<]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_righting_reflex[/url<]

    • Deijya
    • 9 years ago

    The Atrix?

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    yep i agree
    this is the first time i have been excited about a phone in years because its excatly what i wanted

    now we just need fully customizeable tablets (maybe this ara covers that too) and fully customizable laptops (which you can almost get but not quite customizable enough)

    • BIF
    • 9 years ago

    I love this idea!

    I think it would be great to be able to swap components in and out for task-specific events. Maybe even incorporate it all into a wireless tablet+phone combo.

    The possibilities are potentially ENDLESS. Sign me up!

    File under: “Pushing the Envelope”

    • Horshu
    • 9 years ago

    Didn’t someone else try this several years back? There was like a core phone that was super-super tiny, and then you added hardware around it to build up features. It was before smartphones, so the screen was smaller, but the concept was similar.

    • willg
    • 9 years ago

    The resulting modular phone will be heavier, bigger, less power efficient and more expensive than a tightly-integrated non serviceable handset, simply because each discrete component will require an enclosure of its own, a connector and silicon that may have otherwise been integrated into the SoC to save cost/weight/power.

    The software ecosystem for this smartphone will need to support an installable driver model and plug & play, firstly, I’m not aware mobile platforms support that kind of model and secondly, isn’t it all a bit of a liability like it is on full size PCs – with possible incompatibilities, hundreds of possible configuration mutations etc.

    It’s a contrarian approach in an era where more and more functionality is being tightly integrated onto the same piece of silicon and wrapped up a walled-garden piece of software tightly coupled to the device.

    I don’t think this is going to be the open platform like a PC, it’s going to be more like Games Console with first party and tightly controlled licensed peripherals.

    File under: expensive gimmick.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    I think as long as the screen is a sensible resolution, you could integrate that into a chassis with a motherboard that let you have [list<][*<]good quality buttons [/*<][*<]a comfortable shape to hold in your hand[/*<][*<]the solid feel of a phone that isn't made of 15 separate parts[/*<][/list<] A phone made of too many modules will waste space with many internal connectors, redundant casing (as each module will have its own case rather than the parts being enclosed by a single, stronger outer case) There will inevitably be some gaps and some mechanical play between the separate parts too..

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    im more interested in changing cpus and screens and maybe if possible adding more memory and a bigger battery and having my own choice for a camera
    and i think id rather a smaller screen im not too fond of the massive 5″+ phones we have that are so popular nowdays – 3.5-4″ screen is big enough for my small hands

    heck i think i just need exactly what project ara is offering

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah, fully modular is too great a step to be appealing to the masses I think.

    Maybe a chassis with rounded corners and a screen (like a normal, comfortable-to-hold phone) but rather than just the option of an SD card and a replacable battery, how about making the communication chip, processor, NAND, and camera replaceable as well? That would be a huge leap forwards without making it as scary as a large, uncomfortably rectangular brick.

    Right now we have almost no upgradability at all (Samsung phones with battery and MicroSD excepted)

    This fully-modular idea (and Phoneblocks) are too far in the other direction.

    People rarely want the extreme polar-opposite ends of a scale, they want the happy middle ground: A phone that can be upgraded without being so completely modular that it compromises the shape, size, weight and build-quality….

    • internetsandman
    • 9 years ago

    How much would one of these cost compared to an equally specced out android or iOS phone

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    wont be holding me back – i use my phone to make phone calls text people and maybe look at a few things on the net when im in a free wifi zone (like mcdonalds) and thats about it and my defy does that plus more
    i dont even need a new phone (my current ones is plenty fast enough) but this thing seems awesome to have anyways as i can build it how I want and upgrade it how i want just like a computer which i think is freakin awesome

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    It will almost certainly hold you back versus newer phones from competitors.

    The mobile world is too competitive to think about supporting devices from two years ago, let alone anything older.

    This is a fail, and a sign of some desperation.

    • f0d
    • 9 years ago

    i know there are a lot of people out there that dont like this idea going by the comments but i freaking love it

    i would upgrade from my 2010ish phone to one of these in a heartbeat as i like the idea more than anything

    i dont need a crazy powerful phone every six months so i have kept my motorola defy throughout all these new smartphones that have come out since as it was good enough and thats all i needed

    but this thing gets me interested in phones again, probably as im a pc enthusiast and like building my own things and the idea of a fully customizable smart phone sounds awesome (yes i know im probably a minority in terms of phone users)

    i hope this does come out – even if it costs a lot i dont care its exactly what i want

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    *crickets*

    • DPete27
    • 9 years ago

    The splatter effect when you drop one of these phones would be glorious.

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    I see your airbag module and raise you one bungie module with a ring that goes over your middle finger.

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 9 years ago

    The consumers that only care about how thin or fancy their phone is, won’t be interested.

    The consumers that like DYI projects, will most likely be interested.

    Props for Motorola for recognizing that there’s two different mobile market, one is crowded, and the other one is mostly under-served.

    • brucethemoose
    • 9 years ago

    Want, but sadly I don’t think it will happen.

    Reason 1: How would this thing get FCC/CE/etc. certification.

    Reason 2: Drivers for the massive combination of different hardware (everything would have to be ridiculously standardized, which nearly defeats the purpose of modularity).

    Reason 3: The extra cost, bulk, and connection issues from the modular design.

    Also, most people are used to contract prices: the upfront cost of individual components would scare average buyers unless communications companies jump on board.

    I can see this happening for tablets at some point.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    Heat and wiring are problems with this modularized concept of a phone as well, SOCs can get pretty hot, as can batteries. All phones nowadays still rely on passive cooling which already puts a soft limit on how much power SOCs can use (ever accidentally let a phone lie in the sun?), if we were to try and upgrade these SOCs they had better try and stay within that limit or come up with something to increase cooling capacity.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    seriously though, what about an airbag module? Phones can already detect whether they’re falling or not (at least the latest iPhone has that continuous motion sensor thingy), so why not take advantage of that? And with the module system, you can just swap out your expended airbags after you drop your phone. It would still be pretty expensive to drop it, but at least not as expensive as a new screen.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    and all those sealed connectors would make the whole a lot more bulky than even a contemporary water/shock resistant phone

    • cynan
    • 9 years ago

    Maybe start with a standard 4.5-5″ phone form factor with one or two docking ports that most people would find the most useful and go from their?

    For example:
    1) A port on the side that accommodates either a hardware keyboard or breakout port cluster (ie, mini HDMI and USB, 1/4″ TRS and maybe a mini S/PDIF)

    And maybe:

    2) A port on the back of the phone that can accommodate a battery expansion or better camera module

    Would enough people really be interested in more modularity than that (if even that much)?

    • TwoEars
    • 9 years ago

    I really, really, REALLY like it.

    Want a better camera? Stick it in there and give the old one to a friend.

    Broke the screen? Easy fix and not a 1 month repair job.

    Upgrade the WiFi? Easy as one two three.

    Want bigger battery? Sure we have that too!

    How can you not like something like this?

    • GTVic
    • 9 years ago

    If each module was sealed and communicated optically and powered via sealed power connectors that would be interesting.

    • windwalker
    • 9 years ago

    Google’s strategy for Android hardware is finally coming into focus.
    They’re hoping to turn phone OEMs into the same kind of starved bottom feeders as Wintel PC manufacturers.

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 9 years ago

    There are two big hurdles to doing that with laptops.

    The biggest is varying heat output, but fixed cooling. Unlike your SoC example or a desktop, a thin laptop’s “CPU” is often a multi-chip package, in countless shapes, sizes, and TDP variations.

    Then there’s the wiring. Phones and most tablets have very little. Desktops use standardized ports in a standardized position. Laptops can’t, especially thin ones.

    Even if a piecemeal option existed, you’d probably end up taking the package deal. Most of the cost is what you’d have to buy soldered to a motherboard.

    The rest is cheap, including the screen, since it’s so small. Batteries wear out over time. A swappable wireless card might still need a different antenna setup. And all of the components are constantly improved for power efficiency, including the wiring itself.

    • chµck
    • 9 years ago

    It’s so that the phone will only fall on it’s back, protecting the screen.
    You can only drop it 9 times though.

    • chµck
    • 9 years ago

    *Disclaimer: I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is*

    One of my major critiques for the phonebloks concept was how well each module would be able to interface with one another, specifically parts that require high speed communications. Has motorola disclosed how they would remedy this?

    It seems to me that the only parts that would benefit the most from this concept are the CPU/GPU and maybe RAM/storage, and the camera. In this case, wouldn’t it makes sense to make a phone that can swap out these parts? Attempting to make other components modular for the sake of being module would, IMO, make the phone more bulky than necessary and may not be worth the trouble.

    Then there may be the issue of the compatibility of the parts with each other, as well as software. For example, in order for Nokia to slap 41MP sensors into their devices, they need specialized hardware and processing algorithms. How could a modular design surpass a well integrated system? Besides, Sony has already release an add-on camera for android/iOS phones: [url<]http://www.sony.net/Products/di/en-gb/products/ec8t/index.html#overview.[/url<] If you need more than that, then you'll probably be shelling out big bucks that would be better spent on a real camera. I think it is obvious that this will be a very niche device that won't bring any special benefits.

    • Hattig
    • 9 years ago

    The best part of this is that if you crack your screen, you can slide in a new screen easily.

    I’d like this in a tablet and netbook/ultrathin format too. Why buy an entire full new system when all I want is to upgrade my processor SoC from a dual-ARM Cortex A15 + Mali 628 GPU + 2GB to a quad-ARM Cortex A57 + Mali 760 GPU + 4GB a year down the line?

    But … modularity never seems to win on the market, because it costs more up front, and is a bit chunkier.

    In many ways its like when laptops had removable drive bays, except even the mainboard and display is swappable.

    • trackerben
    • 9 years ago

    As the World Turns Dept: Microsoft buys Nokia to remake itself into a devices company. Google buys Motorola to turn itself into a platforms company.

    • trackerben
    • 9 years ago

    So it won’t turn into a dog of a phone.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 9 years ago

    LOLCATS theme module.

    • Price0331
    • 9 years ago

    Now that Motorola has Google money backing it, this could be huge. Color me interested.

    • nico1982
    • 9 years ago

    What is the cat module for?

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    I really like the idea, but whether it will be any good is entirely dependent on the execution and marketing. If they can get other OEMs on board to produce components to standards and foster competition between them, and if they can market it well enough that it gets the sale numbers that they need to keep the unit cost down, then I see this becoming the personal device of choice for anyone who buys a phone for a purpose.

    • chuckula
    • 9 years ago

    Trying to talk down the price there Neely?

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    Looks stupid. Ugly, big, bulky, and even less water resistant than modern phones.

    This looks like someone’s hobby project. These won’t sell in any sort of volume. Motorola is wasting time and resources on this.

    • Modivated1
    • 9 years ago

    Sounds a lot better than spending $750 for a new cell phone every year (that or having to constantly update your contract so you can get a new phone an therefore stay tethered to cell phone provider contracts.

    This seems like it would work well with T-mobiles no contract deals. Imagine if you could buy a phone and keep it for 4 or 5 years instead of 1 or 2 and spend less money to get the latest upgrade.

    I hope it works out the way they envisioned it!

    • bthylafh
    • 9 years ago

    Niiiice. As someone who really likes having a slide-out keyboard, this should give me a lot more choices than whatever was current the last time one of the mfrs made a slider phone.

    I really hope that MotoGoogle will keep their software more open too so Cyanogenmod can run on these easily.

    • chuckula
    • 9 years ago

    DO WANT!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!