Tinkerers and designers, rejoice. Motorola’s new open source Project Ara promises to let you play with the guts of your smartphone to your heart’s content. There are other potential advantages to the modular hardware concept. Since parts can be easily swapped out, fewer phones — which often contain toxic elements such as lead and mercury — may end up in landfills.
Motorola’s making a big splash with the launch of Project Ara, an ambitious, open source hardware initiative that allows consumers to customize their entire phone, down to the specific components and display.
Ara’s modular approach to phone design centers around an endoskeleton, or “endo,” that is the core frame holding the other components together. Consumers will be able to swap modules in and out however they like: an old processor ditched for a snappy new one; a large display excised for a smaller screen with a physical keyboard; an additional battery in place of a camera. They’ll also have the option of toying with the aesthetics through different-colored modules.
“We know there are a number of folks who like to tinker with their devices,” Ramon Lamas, research manager of mobile phones at IDC, told TechNewsWorld. “I think there’s going to be some interest out there, but you’re talking to a very select segment of the market as opposed to the mass market.”
Open Source Hardware Ecosystem
Motorola, which is a subsidiary of Google, thinks of Ara as Android for hardware. It plans to facilitate a thriving third-party ecosystem with developers and reduce time to market while ramping up the pace of innovation. It expects to release an alpha version of a Module Developer’s Kit this winter.
It’s not yet clear whether developers will flock to Ara — Motorola hasn’t hinted at much direct incentive beyond the suggestion of prizes or, perhaps more enticingly, the opportunity for a hardware developer to make a name for itself on a new platform.
“Based on my initial impressions, I think there’s going to be enough people with enough expertise to pull their resources together and create the pieces of the puzzle,” telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan told TechNewsWorld. “Whether it’s going to be successful or not is the question.”
Motorola has teamed up with Dave Hakkens, designer of the Phonebloks concept. His vision was for a modular, open source phone that consumers could customize however they liked, which dovetailed neatly with Motorola’s vision for Ara, which it had been working on for more than a year.
Motorola is cultivating the community Hakkens built after Phonebloks caught waves of press attention last month. It garnered more than 950,000 supporters after appearing on crowd-promoting site Thunderclap, and it will remain an independent organization. A successful open source project, Motorola has noted, requires both a robust platform and a thriving community.
There’s an environmental-awareness aspect to the project as well. Part of Hakkens’ impetus in creating his project was the fact that mobile phones — which often contain toxic elements such as lead and mercury — end up in landfills. Phonebloks and Ara aim to reduce waste and create an ecosystem of more sustainable hardware.
At this stage, it is not yet clear if or how consumers will adopt the concept. The enthusiasm and support for the Phonebloks concept certainly suggests there’s a market for simple phone hardware customization, yet the time, effort, and cost investment required in shaping an Ara device to personal preferences may prove too cumbersome for some customers.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to get a phone. It’s very easy to walk into AT&T and Verizon and walk out with a phone less than an hour later,” IDC’s Lamas said. “You’ve got to find those people who put that emphasis on design, who put that emphasis on customizability, and are willing to pay a little bit more for that capability.”