Motorola's Modular Smartphone is Brilliant and Insane

Seeking to Make New Tech Last Longer

By Tim Conneally
Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Smartphones, as powerful as they are, are made to disposable.

If a part goes bad, the user can't simply replace that part on the fly and bring the phone back into service. Even minor repairs require a full-scale teardown or a return to the manufacturer.

This is done for a number of reasons, but the principal of these reasons is that our demands for performance are sky high.

Motorola Project AraWe demand 100% uptime, fast execution, high-resolution photography, full bars of coverage, and a huge catalog of apps to keep us entertained if we ever find ourselves unoccupied for more than two seconds.

To get performance like this, manufacturers have to tightly integrate every component in the phone into a tiny ecosystem with fast communications and little energy bleed.

Unfortunately, this also means mobile phones, with their brief two-year lifespan, create a tremendous amount of e-waste.

Motorola's new Project Ara seeks to build a smartphone where this is no longer true – where every major element in the phone can be pulled out like a Lego block and replaced if the need arises.

The idea is that users can replace a part when they need more power or different functionality. If they're at a wedding and want to take better pictures, they can remove the 10 megapixel camera "block" from their phone and replace it with a 31 megapixel camera with an external flash.

The result is a bare skeleton of a phone with slots for everything from the screen to the sensors to the processor. If the user wants more battery power, they can fill additional slots with batteries. If the user wants a keyboard, they can ostensibly snap one into place.

This concept enjoyed widespread exposure a few months ago when designer Dave Hakkens released a video discussing "Phonebloks," as a solution to reducing e-waste. Motorola has been working on the idea for more than a year already and teamed up with Phonebloks after they went viral.

What's the big idea?

It is important to note that this is not a profit-seeking venture. Rather, it's a research and development project looking to reinvent the smartphone. Motorola wants the concept of modular hardware to be open and the platform to be free for manufacturers to license, like Android did for mobile software.

This bit of information is key to understanding the motivation behind Ara.

Google developed the Android operating system so that smartphone makers could advance the development of mobile technology at a faster rate. If manufacturers could work from a cheaply licensable hardware standard, they could put their efforts into fine-tuning the performance of individual components.

In concept, everybody wins. Unfortunately that concept is still a far cry from reality.

An Engineer's Nightmare.

There are so many issues raised by the Ara concept that engineers threw their hands up in disgust in online commentary. Some of the most common complaints included:

  • The signal density within a smartphone causes their layouts to be severely limited. iPhone "Antennagate" a few years ago illustrated the problems that rose from this. With as little as the touch of one single finger on a part of the iPhone's chassis, its radio reception was choked. These sort of undesirable effects are extremely common and could happen at every turn within a smartphone. With a modular concept, every permutation of modules would present a different set of circumstances and potential problems.
  • The system will require some form of software optimization with every hardware swap. Applications that rely on certain components, even the most basic system software, will have to keep a running tally on what it has at its disposal.
  • Third-party component manufacturers will have to standardize components, communications protocols, and other fundamental aspects.

These are just a few examples, translated into the most pedestrian English.

Despite the immediate and pressing technical issues presented by the concept, it's hard to not love Ara and Phonebloks. The goal is to reduce e-waste, increase the lifespan and versatility of the devices we use, and accelerate innovation.

These are goals we can all agree are worth pursuing. 


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