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  (Source: PhoneBloks)
Motorola's Project Ara partners with PhoneBloks to roll out build-it-yourself smartphones

The advanced research team at Google Inc. (GOOG) subsidiary Motorola Mobility (Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects group) has launched a new project dubbed "Project Ara".

The goal is to create a "modular" smartphone composed of parts that plug in, potentially to a common backplane.  The idea is to make a phone that can have easy hardware upgrades or configuration changes (say swapping a bigger speaker for a bigger camera lens) similar to what you can do with a traditional PC.

The concept was initially championed by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, who envisioned a Lego like model called "PhoneBloks":


The concept created much excitement, but was it feasible in reality?

Currently the most common aftermarket phone customization is simply a case.  For example Apple, Inc. (AAPL) sells colorful cases to further spice up the already colorful iPhone 5C.  Motorola takes things a step further with its Moto X flagship device, allowing you to personalize numerous elements of the body design color-wise.
And then there's Nokia Devices, whose Lumia 1020 comes with an optional camera grip, which not only helps you steady your shots, but also expands the device's battery life substantially.
Lumia 1020
And Android phones have been used as the brains for microsatellites, essentially a massive sensor-equipped "case" for a smartphone.
 

PhoneSat 1PhoneSat 1
Powered by Android smartphones, PhoneSat 1.0 cost less than $3,500 to make.
[Image Source: NASA]

Perhaps the most ambitious modular phone product to date was the now-defunct Modu, founded in 2007 by Dov Moran.  Modu drew attention when in mid-2008 launched the world's lightest phone, the minimalist Modu 1.


Something of a freak show, the Modu 1 lacked the bare necessities of smartphones at the time, trading them for a minimalist "phone" unit that slipped into "jackets" to provide additional swappable functionality.  Candy bar phones, tablets, and boomboxes are among the jackets Modu dreamt up.  While Modu earned praise for the flexibility of its product and originality of the concept, ultimately all of the results were somewhat disappointing compared to stand-alone alternatives.

Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Modu eventually went under, ceasing commercial operations in Feb. 2011.  But Google was interested enough in the concept to pay $4.9M USD for several of Modu's key patents, according to unconfirmed reports.

Project Ara
Project Ara inherits the intellectual legacy of Modu.

Now -- for better or worse-- that IP is being rolled into the new Project Ara project.  Motorola writes:

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.

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!
...
In a few months, we will also send an invitation to developers to start creating modules for the Ara platform (to spice it up a bit, there might be prizes!). We anticipate an alpha release of the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK) sometime this winter.

Project Ara has actually partnered with PhoneBloks creator Dave Hakken and his community of modular phone dreamers for the project.

Project Ara

So what will the results be?

Nobody quite knows, but judging by this critical thread on Reddit ("This is currently on the front page. A good example of what happens when no one talks to an Engineer") most engineers believe that while the project is feasible it will produce a bulkier, more expensive, and less efficient phone than the dreamers hope.  3D printing may yet change that, but there's a long way to go to overcome the technical hurdles still facing the project.

Phone Bloks Golden Gate bridge

Whether or not modular phones prove as quixotic a quest as the critics claim, it's certainly fun to watch these free spirited efforts to make a Lego phone.

Source: Motorola Mobility [blog]





“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith



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