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Motorola deconstructs the mobile

We’ve been waiting for a customisable smartphone for years now (anyone remember the Lego Phone rumours?). We thought the wait was over last year when Google said it would bring customisation to phones through its then recent acquisition of Motorola. Instead, all the Moto X really delivered was a wider choice of colours, personalised engraving on the case, and a special start-up message. Not very inspiring.

However, Motorola is teasing us yet again with the prospect of customisation. This week the company revealed some early details of its Project Ara, which it describes as an “open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones”.

Project Ara is led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, who say they “want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

Their stated goal is “to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones”. The idea is that we, the buying public, get to decide what our phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long we’ll keep it.

The design consists of what they call an endoskeleton and modules. The endoskeleton 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, whatever. Motorola’s team say they will be working with Phonebloks (which really does look like the dream Lego phone!) and its community of developers to create a global phone platform that is modular, open and customisable.

Paul Eremenko of the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group says they have been working on Project Ara for over a year: “In a few months, we will also send an invitation to developers to start creating modules for the Ara platform. We anticipate an alpha release of the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK) sometime this winter.”

At the moment, Ara and Phonebloks look too much like university experiments (fabulous concepts, very worthy, but able to become mainstream commercial products…?). Motorola has a lot of work to do if it really wants Ara to become a reality, let alone prove that a market actually exists. And if nothing else, it puts Motorola back in the innovation spotlight. We wish them the best of luck.

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