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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]



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Impossible and stupid
By UpSpin on 10/29/2013 3:53:27 PM , Rating: 3
Impossible, simple.
The industry goes in the direction of tighter integration, which is the opposite direction of this concept. The reasons for tighter integration are: Lower cost, smaller design, more efficient.
This concept is against all those.

Just take a look at the headline picture:
There can't be a seperate block for Wifi, BT, GPS, WWAN, because it's contained in one chip, or nowadays in the main SoC. So there's one block, the SoC.
The same with sensors like Acceleromter, Magnetometer, Gyrometer, it's a single chip.
Oh, another block, but this block doesn't need to be 1cm^2 large, 3^2 is enough for the IC, but the Block would be too small to handle.
I can go on and on with the list.

The modular concept looks nice on paper, but it's stupid in practice.

Additionaly is the development so fast, that once you want a new display, you can upgrade the SoC to a magnitudes faster one, and with it the camera to a magnitudes sharper one, battery, ... So you can upgrade everything.

Of course you don't have to, but you currently also don't have to buy a new smartphone each year, still most people do.




RE: Impossible and stupid
By UpSpin on 10/29/2013 3:54:28 PM , Rating: 2
Fix: I meant 3mm^2


RE: Impossible and stupid
By bug77 on 10/29/2013 5:01:57 PM , Rating: 4
Home computers were relatively "tightly integrated" before IBM gave us the PC.

I would settle for being able to pick the CPU (with whatever comes attached), storage, battery size and (no) camera.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By Nortel on 10/30/2013 10:54:55 AM , Rating: 3
It seemed like the concept came about to save the environment. When a new module comes out, you buy it, slap in the module and toss the old one in the trash.

If you look at the typical smartphone refresh, you are getting a heck of a lot more than one component. Bigger battery, better screen, faster cpu/gpu, better wifi/blutooth, improved camera, lighter weight, etc... Once you upgrade all of these, you aren't saving anything vs buying a brand new phone and selling the old one.

This is not even mentioning the complications with developers requiring to write apps compatible with every possible module combination.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By Monkey's Uncle on 10/30/2013 11:34:15 AM , Rating: 4
Difference is that this is incremental and not the 'big bang' of buying an entire new device. In short it is the difference between buying a roast & a few steaks as opposed to buying the whole cow - and throwing in a few pork chops besides.

You don't have to buy all the blocks at once. You want a better screen, just buy the screen. Just want a faster processor/more memory, just buy the system module part. The Bluetooth, wireless, camera, wifi, gyro, gps, speaker, battery can all stay the same until you feel you really need to change one of them. Compare that to replacing your iPhone each time the next gen comes out.

Not only that but you can have the option of multiple vendors for each part. Imagine choosing camera modules from the likes of Nikon, Canon or Sony.

As for OS support - hell, there's ANDROID - the most adaptable OS for mobile products in the world. There is no reason each module could not come with its own android driver just like PC hardware comes with windows drivers. Not such a bit deal.

I could very happily get behind a product architecture like this.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By tayb on 10/29/2013 5:44:35 PM , Rating: 2
You wouldn't need or want to separate the radios. It could be similar to modern desktop computers with swappable parts on the motherboard. Swap the CPU/GPU, memory, storage, radios (single unit), and battery. I don't disagree that it doesn't make a lot of sense but it absolutely is not impossible.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By Samus on 10/29/2013 6:41:59 PM , Rating: 2
Some things should not be modular. Laptops, for example, have always had a lot of embedded and proprietary components. Why? Portability.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By inighthawki on 10/29/2013 8:15:18 PM , Rating: 2
Not just portability, but having a specific set of components helps guarantee system stability as well as extend battery life by using a well tested set of components which the OEMs can pressure hardware vendors to optimize for.


RE: Impossible and stupid
By bug77 on 10/30/2013 4:36:24 AM , Rating: 2
Not only that, but it also guarantees that if you need a faster CPU/GPU, a better screen or something, you'll have to buy the whole package again. A manufacturer's holy grail.


Possible, but dumb
By tayb on 10/29/2013 3:39:36 PM , Rating: 2
This is completely different from the Phoneblok concept video I saw a few months ago and is shown in this article. That video showed pluggable components fitting basically anywhere on the phone. It looked like an enormous engineering challenge with not a lot of benefit.

This concept is more like a motherboard with existing slots designed for particular parts. Far less of an engineering challenge but still not a lot of benefit for end users right now or the future.

I just don't see a lot of benefit of a design like this until we completely get away from the carrier model. Even then, a phone design like this will sacrifice battery life, performance, and aesthetics for the sake of upgrading individual components. If they manage to absolutely perfect the architecture and write perfectly optimized drivers the battery life and performance problems may disappear but the aesthetics never will. There is a reason the slimmest phones don't have replaceable batteries.

You can very easily assemble your own desktop but the vast majority of people choose not to. You can also easily assemble your own laptop but an even smaller percent choose to do that. (You don't build anything, please stop saying that) So basically I don't see the market for this and don't see the benefit right now. But hey, not my money invested in it so more power to them.




RE: Possible, but dumb
By Flunk on 10/29/2013 3:54:52 PM , Rating: 2
Well, the biggest difference is that the Phone Block model is practically impossible. From an engineering perspective it just doesn't make sense. This is a more realistic system that can accomplish many of the same goals.

I don't think that a vast majority of people will be putting together their own phones, but they will have the option to take it in to a store and get them to quickly upgrade it or to buy more customized phones to begin with.

I think it's a neat idea, but we're going to have to see how the implementation will turn out. It's too early to say if this is brilliant or poorly thought out.


RE: Possible, but dumb
By inighthawki on 10/29/2013 5:51:28 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
(You don't build anything, please stop saying that)


build
verb

1. construct (something, typically something large) by putting parts or material together over a period of time.


RE: Possible, but dumb
By tayb on 10/29/2013 7:17:04 PM , Rating: 2
To build is to form a new composite whole from parts. To assemble is to fit components together.

In home construction you build components of the house using wood, nails, concrete, or other tools. You then take those parts and assemble them into a house. You literally cannot build a computer. Even if you hand crafted all of the components individually you are still going to assemble them to form a computer.

Build does not equal assemble.


RE: Possible, but dumb
By inighthawki on 10/29/2013 7:57:00 PM , Rating: 2
You're just being pointlessly stubborn about your semantic interpretation of the word. The two words are considered synonyms for this use. There is nothing at all wrong with saying "building" a computer.

Things do not need to be "hand crafted" to consider it to be "built" in the same way the people who build bridges to not "hand craft" the I-beams they use.


RE: Possible, but dumb
By wordsworm on 10/29/2013 10:26:25 PM , Rating: 2
You need to know that some horses won't drink no matter how thirsty they are.


3D Printing?
By otherwise on 10/29/2013 3:00:43 PM , Rating: 2
I really fail to see how 3D printing has anything to do with this project. Are you suggesting this is somehow going to let you print your own phone?




RE: 3D Printing?
By sorry dog on 10/29/2013 3:11:58 PM , Rating: 3
If they were to actually make the phone compatible with Legos... I guarantee you it would be a hit for Christmas. My kids would think they've died an gone to heaven if they can play Mindcraft and Lego on the same toy.


ridicolous
By Murloc on 10/30/2013 2:41:16 PM , Rating: 2
it's ridicolous, phones and really portable laptops both recently switched away from even allowing you to change the battery or buy a bigger one.
And now they want to go in the opposite direction with this?




A possible explanation for this
By ProZach on 10/30/2013 8:32:33 PM , Rating: 2
I mostly agree with previous posts that this concept, if possible, may not be satisfactory end-product. I suppose after several more shrinks in process nodes and several generations of improved battery technology (not to mention the software beneath) would help push this concept further.

I experienced the same thrill of adding/changing computer components when putting together my first machines but at that time I belonged to a tiny fraction of computer users. Years later those same people who flung pejorative remarks at me for my hobby suddenly claimed themselves as computer experts for their mastery of the mouse cursor, yet they still were superstitiously wary of self-upgrading and</> pestered me to deal with their technical issues.

Fast-forward: now everybody and their grandmothers have these mobile devices. Being the John Hammond-esque masters of computers that they are, I suppose they would like to experience the idea of modular components on their friendly-looking thing-a-ma-jigs.

Isn't it nice to be surrounded by everyday experts? ;)




Easy to break
By vision33r on 11/4/2013 11:48:44 AM , Rating: 2
Everyone has dropped a phone at some point, a module phone would probably not last many drops without getting lose. If you bolt down the pieces it will add weight.

To get a functional modular phone, it will weigh a lot more than current gen smartphones.

In the end, it may only sell only to geeks. Most folks do not care about upgrading pieces of their phone when they can get a free phone every other year.




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